How to Help a Depressed Teen

MotherComfortingTeenTeens are moody. They always have been. But a recent study published in the journal Pediatrics suggests that today’s teenage angst goes beyond the simple rite of passage. It is a growing, serious problem.

The study of 172,000 adolescents revealed a 37 percent increase in the number of teens who experienced a major depressive episode (MDE)—a period of at least two weeks of a low mood that is present in most situations—during a 12-month period. And in 2015 alone, according to the Department of Health and Human Services, more than three million adolescents aged 12–17 experienced at least one MDE. In addition, more than two million teens reported depression severe enough to interfere with their ability to function on a daily basis.

That represents a lot of down days, even for hormonal teens.

Despite this rise, no corresponding increase in mental health treatment for teens has occurred, suggesting that many, if not most, depressed kids suffer quietly. The American Academy of Pediatrics is now recommending that everyone between the ages of 11 and 21 be screened annually by their doctors, an action that may eventually move the needle toward greater identification of teens in need of help. But, in the meantime, parents and teachers can take proactive steps to help protect the mental health of the teenagers in their lives. Here are some good places to start:

Encourage rest.

Studies suggest that sleep-deprived students are three times more likely to be depressed than their well-rested colleagues. Teens function best on eight to ten hours of sleep a night, but the reality is that 90 percent of them get less than that. Encourage better sleep by maintaining daily routines, including going to bed and waking up at the same time each day.

Teenagers need simple breaks too—time away from studies, away from computers, away from the demands of their lives.

Nurture them with nutrition.

A healthy diet arms the body and mind so that it can respond in a healthy way to the pressures of adolescent life. Unfortunately, the busyness and independence of the teen years translates into a lot of fast food, soda, and nutritionally void snacks. Make it a point to sit down regularly for meals with your teen, and provide food as close to its natural state as possible. Eating a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and nuts and seeds gives your body the nutrients it needs to fight depression.

Send them outside.

Studies abound proving the positive effects of sunshine and nature on emotional and mental health. Sunlight naturally increases the brain’s level of serotonin, the “happy hormone” that boosts mood, promotes positive thinking, and increases feelings of relaxation. And research shows that spending just five minutes in a “green” setting improves mood and self-esteem. So ask your teen to do yard work, wash the car—anything that gets them out into the sun. Even adding pictures of natural scenes around your house can lift spirits. Finally, open your teen’s windows every day, even if they come in and close them again. Eventually they may decide they enjoy a daily dose of the outdoors.

Be supportive.

Psychologists report the number one factor putting teens at higher risk for suicide is not having the support of their parents. More than anything else, kids need to know that their parents will love them no matter what they do or who they are. Build a strong foundation by regularly telling them, “I am proud of you,” “I accept you,” “I support what you want to do in your life,” and “I believe in you.”

Don’t stigmatize.

Depression is a disorder of the brain, just like acid reflux is a disorder of the stomach. Every organ in the body deserves the same attention to its health. Talk about depression just as you would any other medical problem, and your teen will be more willing to open up when they are struggling.

Listen, listen, listen.

All too often, adults want to give advice and fix problems. Instead, experts say, spend 90 percent of a conversation with teens simply listening. The remaining 10 percent can be used to help them brainstorm solutions. Getting teens to talk about their feelings is key, although many may not be able to clearly identify or talk about what they are feeling. Pointing out the ways a child’s behavior has recently changed and expressing appropriate concern is a place to start. Set the groundwork for these sorts of discussions ahead of time. If teens are used to talking with the adults in their lives about feelings, values, and ideas, then a conversation about mental health will come more naturally.

Force relationships.

It’s true that it’s difficult to make a teen do anything they don’t want to do; and adolescents love spending time alone in their rooms, isolated from others. But the importance of healthy, loving relationships in a teen’s life cannot be overstated. Make your teen engage the family. Get their input on activities that will require interaction and foster relationships—a teen is more likely to follow a plan if they help make it.

Take your child seriously.

Suicide is the second leading cause of death for young people aged 10 to 24. In fact, more teenagers die each year from suicide than from cancer, heart disease, AIDS, birth defects, pneumonia, and influenza combined. Every mention of suicide warrants attention. Don’t ever blow off an attempted overdose of any kind, even if it’s Tylenol or natural sleep aids.