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Parental awareness key to recognition, treatment of teen depression

Mental illness affects people of all ages and often it is not prompted by life events or other external causes. Because October is National Mental Health Awareness Month, there is no better time to highlight the importance of early detection and intervention for mental illness.

While no one is immune from mental illness, adolescents are especially vulnerable and represent a major at-risk population for developing severe depression. Along these lines, there has been a rise in recent years of completed suicide by teens. Data from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention shows that nearly one in six high school students have considered suicide and one in 12 have attempted suicide.  

According to the National Institutes of Mental Health (NIMH), suicide is the third leading cause of death among adolescents and about 11 percent of adolescents will develop depression before the age of 18. These statistics are alarming because depression is a potentially lethal medical condition that can result in substance abuse, dangerous behavior or lack of self-care.

Teenage depression can be scary for parents who may observe changes in their child including irritability, loss of interest in activities or personality change. Parents of depressed teens may not know how to approach their teen and often fight to find the “right thing to say.”

The most common symptoms of depression in adolescents are:

  • Sadness or hopelessness
  • Loss of interest in usual activities and/or withdrawal from friends and family
  • Irritability and/or change in personality
  • Changes in sleeping and eating habits
  • Thoughts of suicide
  • Difficulty concentrating or focusing

It is important for teenagers and parents to understand that depression is a medical condition and that evaluation and treatment should start with a physician who can evaluate and determine if lab testing or referral to a mental health specialist is warranted. If a teenager is suicidal or placing themselves in immediate danger, then medical assessment should begin in an emergency room or crisis center, possibly even by involving 911 or other immediate response teams.

Treatment for adolescent depression can involve antidepressant medication, psychotherapy or the combination of both. Antidepressant medications modulate chemicals in the brain that have been implicated in depression. Psychotherapy involves “talk therapy” where a patient discusses their concerns and problems with a doctor. This “talk therapy” has been shown to positively affect the brain in ways similar to antidepressant drugs. Only a physician or mental health specialist can determine what type of treatment is appropriate. 

Parents should talk with their teens about depression if they notice changes in behavior or personality. Parents should be gentle when approaching the topic, but need to be persistent and continue following up with their teen. It is a difficult topic to approach, but one that can be life saving for someone suffering from what is a very serious medical condition.

About Matthew Macaluso DO

Matthew Macaluso, DO, is an assistant professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, medical director of Via Christi Psychiatric Clinic in Wichita, Kansas, and associate director of residency training for the University of Kansas School of Medicine-Wichita.