Moody, tired, irritable, angry. These are words many use to describe the typical American teenager, a teen who doesn’t struggle with depression. So how do we know when a teen is moody but is in good mental health versus one who is truly struggling with depression and needs treatment?
There are a number of factors we can use as our guide.
1. Know that depression in teens can look different from depression in adults, especially when it comes to mood changes
One challenge in identifying teen depression is that when we think about a depressed person, many automatically picture a sad and tearful person. However, this image is more accurate for an adult with depression. Teens and kids often show their depression with irritability and anger instead of sadness. So a parent or teacher might assume that a teen has an anger and defiance problem, but another explanation for the behavior could be depression.
2. Ask yourself whether the teen is experiencing any stressful events that could explain some of the changes in mood
Is the teen preparing for finals, going through challenges with peers? Or maybe they are experiencing a big life adjustment such as a move, a family member’s illness or adjusting to a new school. These can all be good reasons why a normally happy and healthy teen might experience a mood shift.
3. Ask yourself, “How long is the change in mood lasting?”
Typically teens are very resilient and can rebound from stressful life circumstances. In those cases, their mood stabilizes once the stress passes. What if the teen’s mood does not rebound after a stressful event or if the teen constantly seems sad, angry or irritable for weeks or months on end? That is a more concerning sign. The length of time that a mood swing persists may be an important clue that the student is actually showing signs of depression.
I suggest monitoring the teen’s mood whether it’s anger, irritability or sadness to pinpoint how long it persists. When a mental health professional diagnoses a teen with depression, he or she is looking to see if the teen has experienced depressive symptoms for at least two weeks.
4. Look at how the teen is doing in different areas of his or her life
Another factor to consider is how the teen is doing in various settings in his or her life. Is he or she irritable and distant at home but thriving in school and sports and has healthy friendships? In this scenario family relationships may need work but clinical depression is less of a risk. Normally a depressed teen will have trouble in most or all areas of his or her life so it can be helpful to check in with teachers, coaches or friends’ parents to help gather more information.
5. See if there are any changes in the teen’s eating or sleeping habits
Mood and mood changes are not the only way to identify teen depression. There are many other signs to look out for such as a change in eating habits. Has the teen started eating much more or much less than usual?
The same goes for sleep. Is he or she complaining that it is significantly more difficult to either fall asleep and/or stay asleep? Again, we run into a challenge here because even healthy teens are known to always be tired and want to sleep in as late as possible. In this case, try to compare his or her current sleep habits with habits months ago. Is there a dramatic change?
6. Is the teen experiencing any physical symptoms that are sometimes found in teens with depression?
We often think that depression only involves emotional symptoms, but there are also some physical symptoms too. Some other signs to look out for are frequent physiological complaints such as headaches, stomachaches and general aches and pains.
7. Has the teen lost interest in activities they once enjoyed and not replaced them with new interests?
Finally, consider if the teen has lost interest in previously pleasurable activities. Did he or she suddenly stop spending time with friends or drop out of school clubs that were once enjoyed? It’s not uncommon for teens to lose interest in activities they loved when they were younger, but they’ll typically replace those activities with new interests. It’s more of a concern when they don’t have any interests they enjoy.
If there’s a teenager in your life who you’re concerned about, it’s best to seek evaluation from a social worker, psychologist, counselor, or psychiatrist.
If you need assistance finding a mental health professional in your community, a pediatrician or school social worker may be able to provide you with some references.
Contribution from Lauren Gumbiner, MSW
Lauren Gumbiner is an Erika’s Lighthouse Executive Council Member. She is a child, adolescent and adult therapist in Winnetka, IL who specializes in treating teen depression and anxiety.