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What is depression?

Depression is an often misunderstood term; people might talk about feeling ‘depressed’ when referring to fleeting periods of low mood. However, depression is a serious illness and can affect all aspects of a teenager’s life, including school, personal interests and activities and relationships with peers and other family members. It can also be very hard to spot for several reasons:

  • The signs and symptoms of depression may be less visible than a physical illness such as a broken leg.

  • It may be difficult to disentangle symptoms which are seen as ‘normal’ teenage behaviours, from those which may be indicative of a more serious problem.

  • A young person may go to great lengths to hide their difficulties and be very reluctant to talk to other people about how they are feeling.

In this Step, we’ll be thinking about some of the warning signs and symptoms to look out for if you’re worried that a young person might be experiencing depression. Some of these ‘core’ signs can typically be present in young people with depression, while others may be less obvious and only present in some cases.

Core signs of depression may include:

  • Feeling low or unhappy for a prolonged period of time. This is different from the more ‘normal’ ups and downs experienced by teenagers in response to everyday life events, for example, falling out with peers, difficulties at school, family arguments.

  • Loss of interest in and enjoyment of usual activities. Whilst it’s normal for the appeal of existing hobbies to sometimes change as young people develop new interests. However, losing enthusiasm for a range of things that a young person previously enjoyed over a period of time may indicate low mood.

  • Irritable mood is a less commonly known sign of depression. This may just be a part of growing up, but if a young person appears irritable about lots of different things over a period of time, it may also be an indication of depression.

It’s important to remember that depression may look different in different people, and that some symptoms may not be immediately obvious to you. We’ve compiled a list of possible behaviours which you might want to be aware of.

All of the signs listed in the factsheet could reflect normal teenage behaviour – after all, it’s a challenging time so mood swings are common, as are changes in sleeping and behaviours asserting independence from parents. So how do you know when you should be concerned? It can be helpful to compare how your young person is currently, with how they normally are. Try to keep an eye on things and make a note of what you have been noticing and how often signs of depression are coming up. This will help you to determine whether it’s ‘teenage behaviour’ or something more serious (ie if they’re unhappy and withdrawn for most of the time).

Sometimes the picture can become a little clearer when you notice a cluster of symptoms which are very different to what’s normal for the young person. This may indicate a significant problem and you may need to speak to a healthcare professional. The criteria which healthcare professionals will follow, when trying to determine a diagnosis of depression, is information based on the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (or DSM-5), which is applicable throughout the world. The following will need to be met:

  • The young person needs to be experiencing at least one ‘core’ symptom and four or more further symptoms.

  • They need to have experienced these symptoms for at least two weeks (nearly every day).

  • The symptoms are causing significant distress or interfering significantly in different areas of the young person’s life.

How does this fit with your experiences? Are these symptoms what you expected them to be?

Depression is a serious and debilitating condition. It may present as prolonged sadness but be mindful that depression in young people may show up as angry or irritable behaviour. When thinking about your young person and whether you should be concerned, be aware of behaviour that represents a marked change from what is normal for that young person. Ask yourself is this a persistent change, and is it having a significant impact on the young person’s life?


A note about anxiety

Depression can often occur alongside an anxiety disorder. Whilst anxiety is not the focus of this online course, it’s important to be aware of the main anxiety disorders in order to think about whether these may be an issue too. You can find out more information about anxiety commonly seen in children and young people here.

Remember – listen to your instincts. If you’re concerned that something is not right, don’t be afraid to voice this and seek help.

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This article is from the free online course:

Understanding Depression and Low Mood in Young People

University of Reading