Anyone can develop a mental health disorder like depression and anxiety. Most often, these disorders arise during the teenage years—between 14 and 18 years old. As a parent, you may be wondering what puts a teen at higher risk of developing mental disorders like depression and anxiety. What are the main causes of anxiety and depression in young people? Keep reading to find out.
Close to 50 percent of adolescents in the United States have faced a mental health disorder in their lifetime, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). Anxiety and depression top the list of the most common mental illnesses in adolescents, with more and more teens showing symptoms of these disorders since the pandemic began.
Anyone can develop depression or anxiety in their lifetime. And, feelings of anxiety and depression are normal, specifically when they are temporary responses to situations or events. However, when anxiety and depression affect a person’s everyday life—disrupting their day-to-day activities and thought patterns—it indicates a much larger concern.
If you suspect your teenager is struggling with anxiety and depression, or has been diagnosed with either disorder, you likely have many questions. One of the most common asks we hear from parents at Turnbridge is, “Why?”: Why did this happen to my child? Why does my teen feel anxious and depressed?
In this guide, we’ll help you understand the top causes of anxiety and depression in teenagers, as well as understand the common factors that contribute to these disorders in young people today.
Common Causes of Anxiety and Depression in Teens
- Biological factors.
Genetics can play a role in a person’s mental health. Teenagers with a history of anxiety and depression in their families may be more vulnerable to developing these disorders in their lifetime.
- History of trauma.
Trauma is a leading cause of mental illness. If your teenager has been exposed to previous trauma—such as violence and abuse, a tragic accident, a significant death, or scary event—this can trigger mental health issues like anxiety and depression.
- Brain chemistry.
The teenage brain is in a period of development, making them more prone to developing mental disorders like depression and anxiety. This period of vulnerability is at its highest until age 25, approximately, when the brain has fully matured. When teenagers encounter constant stress, whether that’s due to high expectations or hormonal fluctuations, it can spiral into symptoms of anxiety and depression. It’s also worth noting that teenagers with depression and anxiety can have different levels of neurotransmitters (dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine) than their peers, affecting their ability to regulate their moods and behaviors.
A teenager’s physical environment—at home, at school, and in social settings—can also increase their risk of anxiety and depression. Those in unstable home environments, for example, are at greater risk. Environmental factors that can cause anxiety and depression at a young age include, but are not limited to: adverse parental relationships, divorce, poverty, neglect, abuse, bullying, and struggling to fit in. This applies outside the home, as well. Teenagers who struggle to fit in with their peers, for example, are at increased risk of developing anxiety and depression.
A lot of pressure is placed upon teenagers, by adult figures and friends alike. Many teens also place pressure upon themselves to do well and succeed. For example, teenagers who are constantly seeking straight A’s in school, balancing extracurricular activities, and wishing to get into a prestigious college might feel more stress and anxiety than their counterparts. Teenagers may also feel pressure to fit in with certain friend groups, and do things they may not agree with (like shoplifting or drug use), which can in turn lead to stress and unhappiness. Many teenagers also place pressure upon themselves to look or act a certain way, which over time can negatively affect their mental health.
- Substance abuse.
Adolescence is a time in which many people will experiment with drugs and alcohol. The initial pressure to use drugs or drink alcohol can be very stressful for teenagers. Even worse, when teens continue to use drugs or drink regularly, it can lead to mental health issues. Some teenagers will develop a dependency on drugs and alcohol, and start to feel anxious or depressed when they are not using substances. Some teens will turn to drugs or alcohol to cope with feelings of anxiety and depression. Research shows that people with depression and anxiety are twice as likely to also suffer from a drug use disorder, compared to the general population.
- Negative thought patterns.
Depression and anxiety often stem from negative thought patterns. For example, a negative worldview, constant self-deprecation, and avoidance of peer connections can lead a teenager to develop clinical symptoms of anxiety and depression over time. Exposure to negative thought patterns, often from parents, can also put a teen at greater risk.
- Learning disabilities.
Teenagers who have struggled with learning disabilities may also be more likely to develop anxiety and/or depression. Learning disorders like dyslexia and ADHD can be extremely frustrating for a young person, and cause them to feel “different” than their peers. It can also lead to greater stress as they struggle to understand learning materials along with the rest of their class, or as they work harder to accomplish good grades. This constant frustration, stress, and feelings of inadequacy can lead to depression and anxiety.
- Social media and technology.
Social media has taken a hold on our adolescent population, and its affecting their mental health. Today, teenagers spend an average of nine hours per day using entertainment media (which includes checking their social media accounts, watching TV, and playing video games). This is more time than they spend sleeping or spending time with their families. While this may not be surprising, it is a cause for concern. For hours on end, teenagers are being exposed to other people’s lives and ways of living, and comparing themselves to actors on TV or influencers on TikTok and Instagram. This can lead them to develop a negative perception of themselves or their lifestyles, and cause issues with anxiety and depression.
- Macro factors.
Teenagers today are thought to have more concerns than some of the generations past. Your teenager has faced the grief, the isolation, and the turmoil caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. They may have lost loved ones, lost their home or stable income, or missed out on important milestones in their academic career. On top of this, many teenagers today have been exposed to a very unstable political climate, with heartbreaking events of racism, gun violence, and social injustice spanning news headlines. Many teenagers feel extreme stress in wake of these events, causing anxiety and depression over time.
Why are Teens Anxious and Depressed?
Now that we understand the top causes of anxiety and depression in teenagers, we can think more about the big question: “Why?” Why are teenagers so anxious and depressed? Why are they so concerned, and what are they so concerned about?
It’s easy for parents to think that teenagers don’t have a lot to worry about, or feel sad about, at such a young age. However, as mentioned, contemporary teens are facing more pressure and stress than in generations past. Here are some examples of why teens might feel anxious and depressed:
Whether in class or on the field, teenagers today want to succeed. And they carry great fear of not doing well. Teenagers who strive for perfectionism and exceptional performance may feel more anxious than others. Constant stress to perform and meet expectations can also lead to depression over time.
- Social status.
Teenagers are hyper-aware of how they are being perceived by others, and often feel an intense pressure to look or act a certain way, in order to be accepted by their friends. This can lead some teenagers to develop social anxiety, as they are constantly worried about what others might think of them. It can also lead to depression, among those teens who have low self-esteem, who lack confidence, and who feel they will never fit the part.
- Chronic stress.
Teens who experience chronic stress are more likely to develop anxiety and depression. Common causes of stress in teenagers include long-term instances of bullying, abuse, academic problems, and other mental health issues like ADHD or an eating disorder. Stress in teenagers can also stem from any differences they might face in their lives. For example, LGBTQ+ teenagers in unsupportive environments face chronic stress and have a greater likelihood of depression, anxiety, and suicide.
There are many causes of anxiety and depression in teenagers, and it is important to remember that every person is unique. Each teen will have different triggers, risk factors, and experiences associated with their disorder.
If you are a parent and concerned about your child’s mental health, the best thing you can do is to help your teen feel supported and validated. Rather than dismissing their feelings as “normal” or a “phase” they are going through, take time to listen to your child and understand their needs and struggles. Do not hesitate to seek professional help if your teen is showing any signs of depression or signs of anxiety disorders. There are treatment programs and therapy options that can be customized to your teen’s individual needs, and help them back on the path to a happy, productive life.
Turnbridge is a recognized mental health treatment center for adolescents and young adults. We are well-versed in depressive and anxiety disorders in teenagers, and their unique needs and experiences during the recovery process. If you would like to learn about Turnbridge, please do not hesitate to explore our programs online below:
You may also check out more of our helpful content on anxiety and depression in teenagers: