Signs of depression in teens. Not the same as adults

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Signs of depression are different for teens than they are for adults. Some teens can look so happy and well adjusted because they are masters at hiding depression.

Charles could be moody, sullen sometimes but he was actually hypersocial– always needing to be surrounded by people.

He was often described as “unmotivated,” another telltale sign of depression.

Charles always got sick. He caught absolutely everything.

I never knew it until recently but getting sick all the time is a sign of depression– especially in teens. Charles was diagnosed with depression at wilderness but he never admitted it. Too much stigma. He’d admit to the sleep disorder, anxiety and ADHD.

I got calls from teachers over the years, some good but mostly not since he was a nervous wreck (anxiety) and rarely prepared for class although wicked smart. It was always such pleasure to talk to the English teacher or the theater teacher. (And his Kindergarten teacher Terry Bryant) That was when we got glowing reviews of how talented he was. What an amazing and imaginative writer he was. These teachers were always so tuned into him.

It was Kerry Fretwell, his beloved theatre teacher, that first told us via an assessment we had asked for through special ed that she believed he suffered from depression. That took guts. You never know how parents will react to that news.

The most prevailing theme was that Charles was always at the clinic at school with a stomach ache or headache. He went to the doctor more often than my oldest child and tended to get sick more often. Gastrointestinal complaints that can’t be traced back to anything specific, headaches, muscle aches as a result of tightening those muscles, falling asleep in class and sleep problems overall are indications although that can indicate many other things, too.

Lack of motivation

There are so many books and articles on how to motivate a teen when in reality lack of motivation has to do with depression or some other mental illness. Drug abuse can also cause motivation to sag. Kids reaching for alcohol or marijuana to self medicate will often lose desire to do things. Today’s marijuana is not like that of the 70s, it’s far stronger.

Hard to believe that the funniest kid in school suffered from depression

No one else at school recognized the signs. No one else mentioned it. And I think that a lot of the behavior in school we all label as “bad” is usually due to some kind of struggle with mental health, learning differences, drugs, or all the above.

Charles was at one point, suspended for a panic attack. While in detention, they took away his music which was how he coped with extreme anxiety and depression. Basically, they had approved it and someone came in and saw and demanded he remove the ear buds.

Nothing like hard core discipline on a child who is barely hanging on. He didn’t threaten anyone or cuss, he just shook and cried, had a melt down and asked for me. They decided to interpret that as his wanting to be suspended.

Trouble with the law

What we often dismiss as mischievous behavior can be an early indicator of depression or some other mental health problem. Not just pranks. It’s once it starts to go beyond that. It has to do with frustration and not being able to express what’s the matter. It’s like they go thrill seeking to replace what’s missing in their brains.

Anger

We often look for signs of the typical sad teen when in fact one sign of depression is anger. Sometimes mean, uncontrolled anger.  If your child is punching walls, that anger management is most likely linked to frustration. It can be an indication of a lot of things but collectively with other things, it can be a sign of depression.

Problems with self esteem

Those who suffer from depression later, often have a hard time seeing themselves as worthy people. That can manifest itself in several ways.

One of the ways that alarmed me was the number of dares Charles would take. I think part of that was his sensation seeking personality trait mixed with low self esteem. One time friends dared Charles to lick the bottom of a pair of soccer cleats right after a game and he did it. They didn’t give him what they promised and that leads to further humiliation.

There were other indications of this behavior and despite my asking about it, I never got an answer. Now I understand this as not valuing yourself enough to say “Screw you, I’m not doing that!”

So it’s not just, “I don’t think I’m pretty enough.” Look for comments that send up red flags. Don’t ignore them. Write them down in a file and collect data. As early as 5 years old, they’ll say things like:

  • I hate myself
  • I’m so stupid
  • I’m worthless
  • I wish I was never born
  • I’m so dumb
  • Nobody loves me
  • I wish I could kill myself

See this post for an early intervention that worked to adress feelings of low self esteem in a 7 year old. 

Deeply Empathetic

Charles had this one backwards and forwards. He took on the world’s problems and made them his own when he hit a major depressive episode. Those who suffer from depression also take on their friends problems, too. If someone is suffering from suicidal ideation and follows through, a depressed teen can feel responsible for that death.

In a school setting it is important to address suicide as a cause of death like other causes of death so as not to stigmatize it further and give those at risk the chance to reach out. By keeping it cloaked in secrecy you send a message of shame and increase the likelihood that other teens will follow suit.

Promiscuity

This is more common in females and is mixed with the self esteem issue. Since it’s an early indicator of depression, I needed to include it on its own.

Drug and alcohol abuse

When suffering from depression, many will reach for a substance to alleviate the pain they are feeling. With so many of adults modeling behavior of coping with their problems using a substance, it’s no wonder our kids do, too. If having a drink is your way of “relaxing” they are likely to adopt this habit as well.

So looking at your own relationship with alcohol is a good step for parents to take. It’s not unlike families that go to the beach to think that drinking the maximum amount of alcohol equates to a fun vacation.

It’s also normalized in our culture to take a pill to fix something. And as we’ve discovered, some of those pills lead to deadly addictions. Oxycodone is heroin. Percocet is heroin. Vicadin and tramadol are heroin. For a list of medications and what to do to teen-proof your home, or see this pdf.

Childhood trauma

This can be anything from some kind of abuse to losing a parent at an early age. Childhood trauma that happens to children who are predisposed genetically to mental illness at a vulnerable age when their brains are developing can develop issues later.

Creativity, particularly in music

This is not clinical based evidence. It is my own observation in studying this over the years.  Those who suffer from depression often find music soothing and/or performing or writing music as an outlet. As a creative person, I’ve simply seen that creative people seem to be more predisposed than other personality types.

Educators, administrators and students deserve more education on mental health

The stigma in high school is very strong.  We need to open our mouths and talk about it. We need to encourage school clubs to focus on awareness for suicide and mental health so students who do suffer see their peers recognizing and showing support.

Only then will we have any hope that adolescents will seek or accept help.

Did Charles show signs of mental illness earlier in his life?

Published by

Anne Moss Rogers

I am an emotionally naked TEDx speaker, and author of the Book, Diary of a Broken Mind. I raised two boys, Richard and Charles, and lost my youngest son, Charles to substance use disorder and suicide June 5, 2015. I help people foster a culture of connection to prevent suicide, reduce substance misuse and find life after loss. My motivational, training and workshop topics include suicide prevention, addiction, mental illness, and grief. As talented and funny as Charles was, letting other people know they matter was his greatest gift. And now the legacy I try and carry forward in my son's memory. Professional Speaker Website. Trained in ASIST and trainer for the evidence-based 4-hour training for everyone called safeTALK.

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