Healthy Living Magazine


There are many misconceptions about depression in teenagers. The occasional bad mood or acting out is to be expected, but depression is something different and should not be ignored.

As teenagers face many challenges and pressures, their mental health is much more fragile during this time period. The transition into adulthood is not always a smooth one, as there can be parental conflicts, social/peer pressures, and identity formation issues.

Only one in five teenagers receives help, as teens usually rely on their parents, teachers and other caregivers to recognize their suffering and help get them the attention they need. Although it is not always easy to differentiate between depression and normal teenage moodiness, some occurrences may indicate a more serious problem and the need to seek help from a professional.

Signs/Symptoms of Depression

  • Sadness or hopelessness
  • Irritability, anger or hostility
  • Tearfulness or frequent crying
  • Withdrawal from family and friends
  • Loss of interest in activities
  • Changes in eating or sleeping habits
  • Restlessness and agitation
  • Feelings of worthlessness and guilt
  • Lack of enthusiasm and motivation
  • Fatigue or lack of energy
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Thoughts of death or suicide

How common is teen depression?

According to the 2006 Canadian Community Health Survey, the rate of depression for teens aged 15 to 18 is 7.6%: 4.3% for males and 11.1% for females. That’s about one in 20 boys and one in 10 girls.

Triggers for Teenage Depression

Teen depression may stem from various biological, psychological and environmental factors, some of which may include:

  • Feelings of little control over life events
  • Influence of sex hormones during puberty
  • Independence conflicts with parents/guardians
  • Breakups
  • Long term illness
  • Bullying and harassment at school
  • Child abuse (sexual and physical)
  • Lack of social skills
  • Eating disorders

What’s ‘normal for teens?

  • Occasional acting out, angry or tearful outbursts
  • Angst about ‘who am I’, ‘where am I going in life?’ or ‘what’s the purpose of life?’
  • Impulsivity, poorly thought-through decisions, failing to foresee consequences
  • Disregard for, or arguing about, household rules and parental wishes
  • Mood swings
  • Procrastination and academic underachievement
  • Going to sleep very late, sleeping well into the day, especially on weekends

Many expressions of depression surface in the teenage years. Do not ignore possible symptoms. If in doubt, consult a professional. The best forms of treatment are proactive.

Many rebellious and unhealthy behaviours or attitudes in teenagers are actually indications of depression. Here are some common warning signs.

  • Problems at School. Depression can cause low energy and concentration difficulties.  At school, this may lead to poor attendance, drop in grades, or frustration with schoolwork in a formerly good student.
  • Running Away. Many depressed teens run away from home or talk about running away. Such attempts are usually a cry for help.
  • Drug and Alcohol Abuse. Teens may use alcohol or drugs in an attempt to ‘self-medicate’ their depression.
  • Low Self-Esteem. Depression can trigger and intensify feelings of ugliness, shame, failure and unworthiness.
  • Lack of Motivation. Feelings of hopelessness, guilt, excessive worthlessness and difficulty making decisions are indicative of depression.
  • Internet Addiction. Teens may go online to escape their problems, but excessive computer use only increases their isolation, therefore increasing their depressive feelings.
  • Reckless Behaviour. Depressed teens may engage in dangerous or high risk behaviours such as reckless driving, out of control drinking or unsafe sex.
  • Violence. Some depressed teens, usually boys who are the victims of bullying, become violent towards themselves or others.
  • Disordered Eating. Drastic food preference changes such as overeating or loss of interest in food resulting in dramatic weight loss/weight gain may be an early sign that something is not right.
  • Social Withdrawal. Teens may begin avoiding family, friends and social activities. Social isolation can worsen the depression and trigger a cycle that needs to be mitigated.
  • Physical Complaints. Teens suffering from depression will commonly complain about physical symptoms such as fatigue, stomach aches and headaches.

Suicide: True Threat or Attention-Seeking?

Teens who are seriously depressed often think, speak or make attention-getting attempts at suicide. Sadly, an increasing number have been successful. It is important for parents, friends, guardians and teachers to be aware of the signs of depression or suicidal ideation and take them seriously. Depressed teens who also abuse alcohol or drugs are at a greater risk for suicide as the substance use may intensify their depressive feelings, or give them the courage to act out those feelings.

Suicidal Warning Signs in a Depressed Teen

  • Talking or joking about committing suicide
  • Saying things like ‘I’d be better off dead’, ‘I wish I could disappear forever’, or ‘there’s no way out’
  • Seeking out weapons, pills or other means to carry out the act

What Can Teens’ Guardians Do?

  • Share your concerns with them in a non-judgmental way, encouraging them to share what they are going through.
  • Let them know you are there for support. If a teen initially shuts you out, don’t give up; be persistent. Talking about depression may be uncomfortable for teens so let them know you’re there to listen.
  • Resist urges to criticize or pass judgment once they start to talk. Avoid unsolicited advice: the important thing is that they are talking.
  • Acknowledge/validate what teens are experiencing/going through. Otherwise they will feel they are not being taken seriously and will avoid further discussion.

Treatment Options

Talk Therapy

  • Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy teaches ways of battling negative thoughts, increasing awareness of symptoms and offering strategies to avoid worsening the condition.
  • Family Therapy may prove helpful, offering support strategies to the household.
  • Psychotherapy can help to understand adolescent thoughts, feelings and behaviours.
  • Ask a doctor or therapist to refer to a Teen Support Group.
  • Kids Helpline (1-800-668-6868) is a 24-hour phone and online counseling service.

Physical activity helps to increase positive feelings and mood, as well as energy levels and metabolic functioning. By participating in even 30 minutes of exercise per day, teens will feel more refreshed, enlightened and better able to improve their mental health.

Avoidance of Drugs and Alcohol
When dealing with mental health issues like depression, it is important to avoid using any drugs or alcohol as they alter the mind and may affect judgment. Some substances may worsen the symptoms of depression or may be used as a means to cope with depressive feelings, which might initiate other serious, long-term consequences.  

Maintaining Treatment

Remember, teen depression tends to come and go in episodes. Once a teen has had a bout of depression, he or she may be depressed again at some point. Keep in mind the signs and symptoms and be proactive in getting help. The longer depression is left untreated, the more damaging it is. Ask your doctor for a referral to someone who specializes in depression (psychologist, psychiatrist).

Get the teen’s input throughout the treatment process: listen to them if they express being uncomfortable or not connecting with the psychologist or psychiatrist. You can always request another referral!

Kelly MacDonald, Laura Spiers and Camille Cato, M.A. Psych. Assoc., are based at the Dr. Heather McLean and Associates Psychology Centre in Markham.



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