Supporting a teenager with depression

RACHEL DOHERTY

Social worker, teacher and the founder of Tweens2teen

Depression is common enough in the lives of teenagers and children that we should all know a little about it. Any adult involved in their lives should know there’s many components to managing depression.

When people think of mental health issues and teenagers, they often think of depression. People see it as a sense of sadness that improves quickly with treatment.

Depression is a lot like diabetes. This is a disease that when you look at someone, you can’t see they have it. It’s also a disease that needs more than medication to manage.

People often have to substantially change how they live to raise their quality of life. Like depression, diabetes is also serious when thing aren’t going well.

By thinking of depression like diabetes, we take some of the stigma out of the equation.

“Good humour is a tonic for mind and body.”

GRENVILLE KLEISER

In late 2015 the Australian Government released a ground-breaking mental health survey.

They spoke to over 6000 families and found depression to be the third biggest mental health issue faced by kids. It comes in behind attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and anxiety.

There are some great online resources that explain what depression is if you’re not sure. Here are two of my favourites:

The survey found that around 5 percent of teenagers in Australia have the symptoms of major depressive disorder.

Young people living in families with low incomes and relationship problems experience higher rates of depression. As do young people living in step families or single parent homes.

High school students on average miss around 23 days of school each year due to their depression.

If you know a young person showing more than three of the these signs for a couple of weeks, they may have depression. Get them to talk to their doctor, a counsellor at school, or visit their local Headspace:

  • Feeling irritable, sad and worthless most of the time
  • Lots of negative thoughts
  • A loss of interest in things they used to enjoy
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Lethargy or feeling tired all the time
  • Loss of interest in food, or lots of comfort eating
  • Difficulty concentrating at school
  • Talking about life being too hard or speaking about suicide

“Depression is living in a body that fights to survive, with a mind that tries to die.” – Anonymous

Antidepressants and the treatment of depression

Young people diagnosed with depression will usually receive counselling.  Unlike adults, antidepressants are usually the last level of treatment people try.

Antidepressants have significant side effects for teenagers, including the risk of suicide early on.

They work to treat the symptoms of depression, rather than the depression itself. Because of this, antidepressants are only effective for around one-third of people taking them. And they work a bit for another third.

Antidepressants take some time to work. Most young people will take at least a few weeks to feel some relief from their symptoms. For many it can take up to six months for the real effect of the medication to be clear. That’s quite different to most other medical conditions, where symptoms improve sooner.

So, for a teenager diagnosed with depression and then prescribed antidepressants, people can assume too soon that they’re feeling better.

These teens are likely to see a professional for their depression, like a doctor, psychiatrist or psychologist, for at most one hour a week. That means that the rest of their support is going to have to come from other caring people in their lives. Like parents, teachers, school chaplains, youth workers and friends.

What support works for young people with depression?

Every young person with depression will have a different experience. But there are 10 things you can do to make a difference for a teenager receiving treatment:

1. Give them space to work through thoughts and feelings

Depression is full of overwhelming thoughts.

Young people who are still sorting out the right levels of antidepressants will need to keep processing these thoughts. That’s difficult to do if they’re expected to carry on like most other teenagers.

A safe space to retreat to and sort through their thinking could help them through their day much better. This place could be a quiet room at school, or leaving them in some peace at home.

2. Don’t be afraid to ask them how they’re feeling

Ask how bad their thoughts are today. All the research says that talking to someone who’s depressed or suicidal about their thoughts doesn’t make them more suicidal.

Depression is such a taboo subject that it can make things worse for young people. Asking them will not only give them a safe space to talk, but might also keep them accountable for how they feel.

3. If you’re worried about them, tell them

Young people with depression can feel out of control. Create a feedback loop where you are telling them that you’re worried about what they are saying, or feel they’re misreading things.

Point out any faulty thinking.

Help them to be in the driver’s seat as much as they can by giving them your perspective. And get them to tap into their specialist services as soon as possible.

4. Listen

They don’t need you to have the answers, although they might get annoyed that you don’t. But they will value that you at least listen to them and affirm how hard they are finding life.

5. Celebrate the good days

Young people with depression can have moments or days of joy. Celebrate them and look for ways to create more.

When they’re down, point out the recent times you saw them enjoying something. But be descriptive.

Say things like “I saw you smiling so much your cheek muscles must of been aching”. Or “you were so excited to score that goal you jumped about three metres in the air”.

6. Help them get distracted

Distraction is an important part of managing depression for teenagers. They might like music, sport, art, meditation, reading, playing games, riding a bike or going for a nice long drive.

Help them to identify ways they can turn their thoughts elsewhere when they’re having a tough day.

7. Ask them what they’ve talked about with their psychologist or psychiatrist

Find out what they’re going to be working on until they go again. Keeping them accountable to implementing new skills and techniques gives them a better chance of actually doing it. Remember that change is hard work.

Teenagers need someone to encourage them to keep trying something new. It could be the difference between them actually doing it or giving up on the idea.

8. Stay hopeful

Depression is an aggressive enemy that keeps coming back time after time. Having someone in their life that believes they have a bright and promising future is important.

Share with them what sort of person you see them as. This is likely to be different to how they see themselves. Point out how others see them from their actions too.

Talk up their purpose and value to this world!

9. Help them look after their overall wellbeing

Young people with depression can sleep too little or too much. They might not get enough sunlight or enough exercise. They can go without eating or overdo it on the unhealthy foods. If you’re in a position to make them a meal or buy them something, suggest a balanced meal.

If you have a chance to get outside and play a game of something, choose that over chatting on the couch.

10. Model good mental health habits

They’re watching you. So if you get down, they need to see that you either bounce back up in a few days or do something about it.

This is their chance to see how other people cope with stress or disappointments. It also is a time to draw on their wealth of knowledge when dealing with self-doubt and a low mood.

Have you had some experiences with young people who are taking antidepressants? I’d love you to share your thoughts below.

By the way, another mental health issue that often co-exists with depression is anxiety. Check out my article on anxiety for some more great strategies.

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