Is Your Teen Depressed?

September is Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. Know how to recognize the signs and symptoms of teen depression and be proactive with an intervention plan before it escalates.

Teen Depression

Statistics indicate that up to 20 percent of adolescents are diagnosed with depression by the time they reach adulthood. Unlike adults, adolescents may still respond positively to things that are of interest to them when depressed and may also exhibit feelings of anger or irritability. If you have concerns about your teen’s mood or behaviors, and believe they may be depressed, having an understanding of how depression impacts adolescents is important.

We asked Lynn Field, Ph.D, Program Director, Outpatient Family Services, Inova Kellar Center, Inova Behavioral Health Services to help explain the warning signs of depression in teens, and what their parents can do to help them manage and overcome it.

Q: What are the most common signs of depression in teenagers?

One very powerful observation of depression in teens is poor performance at school. If their grades drop suddenly, that’s a big red flag. Other common signs of depression among adolescents are:

  • Withdrawal (hanging out in their room alone)
  • Feelings of hopelessness and helplessness
  • Fatigue (sleeping more than usual)
  • Irritability and anger
  • Self-harming behaviors

If parents notice any of these signs and are struggling to determine if their child has depression, I advise them to wait two weeks to see if the behavior change returns to normal on its own. If after two weeks without any improvement, they should seek treatment for depression. At any time, if they hear their child voice thoughts of suicide or see evidence of self-harm, they should seek treatment right away.

Q: Are some teenagers more likely to feel depressed than others?

Yes. First off, there may be a genetic component. When we do assessments, we always ask about mental illness in the family to find out if there is a family history of depression. If there is a family history, then the teens may be predisposed to depression more so than their peers.

Often, I see teens that have been very anxious either as an aspect of their nature or due to the environment. Adding additional stressors to this circumstance might trigger a depressive episode — almost like a circuit breaker that was overloaded and shuts down.

Q: What treatment options are available at the Inova Kellar Center for teens with depression?

The Inova Kellar Center has provided behavioral health services for children, adolescents and their families for more than twenty-five years. The Inova Kellar Center was founded in 1991 in partnership with Inova and visionaries Art and Betty Kellar, who had a strong commitment to serve children and families in the multicultural Northern Virginia region. We have a very comprehensive intake and assessment process to determine the level of care needed for each patient. We look at a lot of factors, including sleeping habits, what they are eating, level of anxiety, family and social functioning, performance at school, substance use, self-harm and suicidal thoughts.

If a teen is depressed but there are no concerns about their safety, we would most likely recommend outpatient therapy to start. If we thought their depression was more severe, we would recommend a different level of care.

At the Inova Kellar Center, we have a Partial Hospitalization Program (PHP) for teens who may be having suicidal thoughts but are not actively suicidal. We also have an after-school Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP) four days a week that treats adolescents who are in need of treatment and/or support due to mood, anger, or anxiety, but without imminent risk of suicide. 

Q: How can parents help their teens live with and work through depression?

At the Inova Kellar Center, we treat both the teen and their family. We offer guidance to parents, and one of the things we stress most is the importance of setting appropriate limits around electronic use, sleeping and nutrition. It’s easy for parents to think depression is something that wouldn’t happen to their son or daughter. But with such an increase in electronics use, some teens have secretive lives.

Q: How can parents help to prevent suicide?

Parents need to pay attention to their child making negative comments. If they see their teen doing things like writing a goodbye letter or giving away their things — those are pretty big indicators that their child is thinking about suicide. They should make sure that their teens don’t have access to anything that could facilitate the suicide, such as guns or pills. Parents also should be mindful of any suicides in the community or school, as there tends to be a triggering effect.

A key point to remember is that if you as a parent have any concern your child could be or is experiencing depression or is talking about committing suicide, please take action right away and have your child assessed by a Behavioral Health expert immediately. Self-harming behavior also warrants immediate attention.

Learn more about Inova Behavioral Health Services, and find a list of locations here. If in need of child and adolescent behavioral health outpatient services, call 703.218.8500. For inpatient adolescent behavioral health inpatient services or inpatient and outpatient adult mental health and substance use services, call 703.289.7560. The Inova Kellar Center provides a full continuum of outpatient services and programs, including individual, family and group therapy, medication management, psychiatric evaluations, psychological testing, intensive outpatient programs, intensive home base services and partial hospitalization programs.

If you or someone you know is in an emergency, call The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800.273.TALK(8255), or call 911 immediately.

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