It is alarming to see rising statistics of suicide attempts in early teenagers in recent times. The teen years are filled with social, emotional and mental challenges with pressure to fit in with their peers while keeping on top of academic performance. Unrealistic expectations both at school and at home can create a sense of inadequacy and disappointment, and lead to the feeling that life is unfair. Add to all this, the information overload via the Internet does not help.
Becoming moody is common while experiencing growing pains. But teen depression is more than being moody and is a serious health issue that can interfere with their routine and scar them for life. The good news is it is treatable and a parent’s love and support can make all the difference in helping them overcome depression and enjoying their life the way they should be.
How do you recognize that your teenager is suffering from depression?
It takes close observation, since depression need not necessarily mean sadness. It can also look like anger, irritability, and a sense of agitation. Some of the signs to watch out for are:
Issues at school: Depression drains energy and causes problems with focusing. This can lead to poor attendance at school, lower grades or a listlessness in school work.
Substance abuse: Some teens may turn to drugs or alcohol assuming that it will help. Of course, this only makes things worse.
Low self-esteem:Depression can make a teenager feel inadequate, unworthy, ashamed and a failure.
Internet overdose: Too much time on the phone, causing isolation and deepening the depression.
Behavioural changes: tendency to be reckless with driving, getting drunk, attempting dangerous stunts and so on. Some become violent and aggressive and injure themselves.
Besides the above, you may also look for the following:
- Eating disorders
- Unexplained sadness
- Anger, tantrums
- Crying for no reason
- Isolating themselves from family/friends
- Disinterest in activities
- Inability to focus
- Aches and pains with no medical cause
- Thoughts of suicide
- Too sensitive to criticism
Now think about how long these symptoms have been obvious and whether your teenager is being different from her usual self. Of course, hormonal changes and stress are normal during these years; however, prolonged unhappiness or lethargy need immediate attention.
A word about suicide warning signs in teenagers with depression
Some teenagers experiencing depression can feel suicidal, especially when there is substance abuse involved. But how do you catch the signs? Here are some pointers:
- Joking about committing suicide
- Phrases like “I am better dead” or “I wish I could disappear” or “There’s no hope” or even positive statements about death
- Writing about death
- Being reckless and uncaring about accidents
- Giving away things she cares for
- Saying goodbye as if it is the last time
- Interest in weapons, pills or other methods of suicide
It is alarming enough to find out that one’s teen is depressed, but left untreated, this can be dangerous.
What can you do?
Start by talking to your teen. Let them know you are worried about the changes you’ve noticed. Ask them to share what they are going through—listen to their side of it—and truly listen without judgment. Avoid bombarding them with questions as it can make them withdraw further into themselves. Instead, assure them that you are there for any support they need. Some communication tips while talking to a teen with depression:
- Listen, don’t lecture.
- Do not criticise or judge.
- Encourage them to talk.
- Be kind and persistent. It isn’t easy for them to talk.
- Be respectful and willing to listen.
- Acknowledge their feelings, their sadness and pain.
- Do not trivialise the situation by saying it isn’t that bad.
If they find it difficult to open up to you, think about getting them to talk to a trusted adult. This may be a school teacher or a family friend or a mental health professional.
Other ways in which you can help them as a parent are
- Encourage them to connect with others. Isolation makes things worse.
- Ensure they get enough physical activity. There is proof that physical and mental health are closely related. Depression can get worse with poor eating habits, insufficient sleep and inactivity. Teens do tend to stay up late and eat junk food, while spending way too much time time in front of the screen. Make their home environment supportive and help them develop healthy habits.
- When depression seems intense, do not hesitate to seek professional help.
- Discuss treatment choices with your teen. This will motivate them to cooperate. Different treatments work for different people, so if a particular strategy does not work with your teen, keep looking for the best way.
- Don’t feel pressurised into seeking antidepressant medication because other treatments are expensive. Medication comes with many risks and are only part of a larger treatment plan.
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If antidepressant medication is necessary, it is important to understand that the risk of suicide is acute during the first few weeks of starting the course and this calls for constant monitoring to see how they’re responding to the medication. Get in touch with your doctor immediately if you notice the anxiety getting worse or unusual changes in behaviour.
It goes without saying that your teen needs your support throughout the treatment, so make sure they know that you are there, and that you value them and care for them. Love is a game-changer in speeding up their recovery to their normal selves.
During this time, as you support your teen, make sure you also take care of yourself and others in the family. It can be easy to worry and forget about yourself. Do not hesitate to ask others for help as you need to stay positive to help your teen.
It is tough enough for a teenager with the competition these days and the pressure to keep up. Depression can make it really tough to believe that things will get better. Professional treatment, combined with family support can bring them back on track.
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