Adolescence is a formative period of development, in which our bodies and brains undergo a series of unique and dynamic changes – physically, emotionally, and socially. During this time, teenagers are inherently vulnerable to mental health problems like depression and anxiety.
This is especially true today, as we come out on the other side of a global pandemic and face a myriad of new environmental stressors. Nowadays, teenagers are constantly up against challenges like cyberbullying, imbalanced academic loads, and even gun violence in schools – and this is all on top of more normal teenager concerns, like peer pressure and their pressing desire to fit in with friends.
As such, the rates of depression and anxiety in adolescents are increasing. According to Mental Health America, over 2.7 million youth today (about 11.5% of our teenage population) are experiencing severe, major depression. However, even more teens experience depressive symptoms. In a new report from the CDC, it was revealed that a notable 40% of high school students have felt so sad or so hopeless in the past year, that they could not participate in their normal activities for two weeks or more.
If your teenager is battling symptoms of depression, they are not alone. Depression is among the most common mental health disorders affecting young people today. And while depression is a treatable and manageable condition, as many as 60% of struggling youth do not get the support they need.
This begs the question, what are the effects of depression on teenagers and young people? How does depression affect teens when left untreated, long-term? Let’s explore these topics in more depth.
The Immediate Effects of Depression on Teens and Young Adults
Teenagers are inevitably moody and often avoidant of their parents or family members. At the same time, teenagers have trouble expressing their feelings well, and may not communicate to their parents when they are feeling depressed. As such, it can be hard to detect depression in your son or daughter. However, there are certain, immediate effects of depression that you may be able to spot.
When the following symptoms affect a young person more than two weeks, it signals depression:
- Persistent sadness and hopelessness
- Extreme mood swings, with anger and agitation
- Lack of energy and motivation
- Fatigue and tiredness, without explicable cause
- Withdrawal from family and friends
- Poor self-esteem and feelings of inadequacy
- Feeling worthlessness, guilt, or shame
- Poor academic performance
- Inability to make decisions and concentrate
- Changes in eating or sleeping patterns
- Drug and/or alcohol abuse
- Troubles with the law or authorities
- Suicidal thoughts
The Long-term Effects of Depression on Teenagers’ Health and Wellbeing
When a young person struggles with depression, it affects every aspect of their lives. It can disrupt their ability to get out of bed in the morning, as well as their desire to maintain relationships or personal hygiene. Over time, depression can lead to a series of effects on teens’ social, emotional, and physical wellbeing. Below are some examples of the effects of depression on teens.
- Disrupted social life.
A teenager facing depression might struggle to develop and maintain relationships, leading to loneliness and a lack of social support longer-term. Due to their low energy, or low self-esteem, depressed teens might withdraw from other people. As a parent, you might notice your teen isolating themselves from others, socializing less than before, or suddenly dropping once-loved social activities. Teens facing depression will often start hanging out with a different crowd, which is another important signal for parents to watch for, as it can lead a teen to get into trouble.
- Drops in academic performance.
Like any mental health disorder, depression affects the brain and makes lasting changes within our neurological systems. For teenagers especially, whose brains are in development, these changes can disrupt important functions and cause a decline in academic performance. Depression causes the brain to release our body’s stress hormone, called cortisol. Over time, however, elevated levels of cortisol can slow down neuron growth and lead to memory and learning difficulties. On top of this, the brain experiences hypoxia when a person is depressed—meaning it does not receive a strong oxygen flow. This can further result in issues with learning, memory, and mood regulation.
- Decline in physical health.
Physical symptoms like stomach aches, headaches, joint pain, and back pain are all very common among people who are depressed. Depression can also cause excessive tiredness, sleep disturbances, appetite changes, and changes in psychomotor activity. The physical symptoms of depression are due to changes occurring within the brain, as neurotransmitters like serotonin become dysregulated. According to national studies, painful symptoms of depression are typically indicative of severe depression.
Long-term, the physical toll that depression takes on the body can lead to other illnesses. In fact, research has found a strong correlation between depression and ailments like heart disease, stroke, fibromyalgia, gastrointestinal issues, and chronic pain.
- Decline in emotional wellbeing.
It may be obvious, but depression can significantly and negatively impact a person’s emotional well-being. Depression is associated with persistent feelings of sadness and hopelessness. At the same time, it can also lead to issues with emotional response. Remember the stress hormone, cortisol, we talked about earlier? Elevated levels of this hormone can disrupt the part of our brain responsible for emotional reaction and regulation. Over time, this can lead to sleeping problems, low energy levels, hormonal balances, and more.
- Risk of other mental health disorders.
Young people struggling with depression are at an increased risk of other mental health disorders. These include anxiety disorders like panic disorder and generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). As explained by the CDC, “Anxiety disorders often go hand in hand with depression. People who have anxiety disorders struggle with intense and uncontrollable feelings of anxiety, fear, worry, and/or panic. These feelings can interfere with daily activities and may last for a long time.”
Eating disorders are also very common among people with depression. Teenagers are especially at risk. Teenagers who struggle with low self-confidence and feelings of inadequacy may do whatever it takes to fit in with, or to look like, their peers. They may stop eating to lose weight and try to feel better about their looks. This, however, can be very dangerous and result in long-term problems managing one’s weight (not to mention physical issues like malnutrition).
- Substance abuse.
It’s an unfortunate reality that mental health disorders often lead to problems with substance abuse. Many people with depression, for example, will attempt to self-medicate their symptoms with drugs and alcohol. They may use drugs and alcohol to escape feelings of sadness or shame, or to temporarily handle the physical pains associated with depressive disorders. Research shows that nearly one-third of people battling major depressive disorder also struggle with a substance use disorder.
Due to their stage of brain development, teenagers are vulnerable to the long-term and dangerous effects of substance use. They are more prone to develop an addiction to drugs and alcohol, as their brain learns – and begins to rely on – these substances to function. As a parent, it is ever-important to communicate the dangers of substance use with your teen.
- Thoughts (or acts) of suicide.
An alarming number of teenagers today (22% of U.S. adolescents) have considered suicide. Suicide is also the second-leading cause of death among our teenage population today. Young women, youth of color, and LGBTQ+ teenagers are the most affected.
The factors that lead a teenager to consider (and attempt) suicide are multifaceted, but almost always involve a mental health condition. In fact, studies show that up to 90% of suicide deaths happen among people who have struggled with symptoms of a mental illness. Symptoms include feelings of hopelessness, excessive worry or fear, persistent sadness, and the inability to cope with stress, among others.
This is by far the scariest, long-term effect of depression – and the risk is increasing. In 2021, roughly 18% of high school students made a suicide plan, and 10% actually attempted suicide, according to new CDC data. If you have any concerns that your teenager might be depressed, do not hesitate to open up the conversation and seek help for your teen if they need it. Depression can lead to suicide, especially among teenagers who do not know how to effectively cope with negative symptoms.
Helping Your Teen Through Depression
When a teenager is struggling with depression, they rarely turn to their parents for help. Some teenagers do not even know they are facing depression at all. As a parent, one of the best things you can do is to educate yourself on the symptoms of depression in youth.
Further, know the warning signs of suicide. These include your teen talking about death, preparing for death (e.g. writing letters and giving away belongings), and threatening to kill one’s self. Less obvious signs of suicide include a general lack of hope for the future, a lack of care for one’s self (i.e. giving up), violent or defiant behavior, acts of self-harm like cutting, and using drugs or alcohol as a coping mechanism. If you suspect or detect any of these behaviors, seek professional help immediately.
Professional support and therapy is always recommended for teenagers who struggle with depression, even if they are not showing signs of suicide. Therapy can be an invaluable resource in helping your teen uncover the root of their depression and develop healthy coping strategies to deal with difficult days. Remember, it’s unlikely your teen will ask for help – As a parent, it’s your role to find them the help they need and deserve. Too many teenagers that face depression do not get the treatment they need.
Finally, you can take action in your home to support your teenager through their struggles. Lending a listening ear and a shoulder to lean on is a great place to start. Ask your teenager about their feelings and struggles. Keep up on what they are doing and how they are facing each day. Offer help when you can, but try not to lecture your teen. They need you to listen, and to be there for support. They also need you to validate their feelings. Do not dismiss moodiness, crying and sadness, or mentions of suicide. Too often, parents think these symptoms are just a passing phase—when in reality, they can lead to serious harm if left unaddressed.
Are you looking for professional help for your loved one? Turnbridge is a recognized mental health treatment center with programs specially dedicated to teenagers and young adults battling depression and other, co-occurring disorders. We are here for you and just one call away. Contact us at 877-581-1793 today.