By Meghan Vivo
Teen depression comes in many forms, not all of which are easily recognizable to parents or teens themselves. For some teens, depression can manifest as anger and irritability, while others may display symptoms like apathy, avoidance or isolation.
The following are some of the most common warning signs of teen depression:
Depressed teens don’t believe life can be better because they don’t have the tools to make the necessary changes to their lifestyle and outlook,” said Neal Christensen, the clinical director at Outback Therapeutic Expeditions, a wilderness therapy program for teens in Lehi, Utah.
According to Christensen, teen substance abuse is often associated with depression and other mood disturbances. Teens may self-medicate negative emotions with drugs and alcohol, not realizing that these chemicals actually exacerbate the symptoms of depression rather than alleviating them.
Other signs Christensen has observed while working with teens in wilderness therapy include regular and intense angry outbursts (which suggest emotional dysregulation and lack of coping skills) and a negative world view.
“Teens struggling with depression often have a chip on their shoulder, which leaves their parents feeling like they’re always walking on eggshells,” noted Christensen.
Tips for Parents
Though there are many reasons teens become depressed, a disconnection from their parents is a common contributor. This disconnect is often at the root of the withdrawal and isolation that are characteristic of teen depression, as teens have given up on developing a tight bond with their parents and others.
“Like adults, teens need to feel heard,” said Christensen. “Parents can help by spending quality time with their child, listening actively to what they have to say and showing their child that they enjoy their time together.”
In addition to spending time together and having fun as a family, it is important for parents to talk to their teens about what’s happening at school and with friends, said Christensen. They should also discuss the effects of substance abuse and how it relates to depression.
Christensen also encourages parents to ask themselves how they may be contributing to their child’s depression or other emotional and behavioral issues. Sometimes parents aren’t managing their own emotions well or are losing control in their interactions with their child, which sets a poor example.
Treatment for Teen Depression
There are a number of effective treatments for teen depression. A therapist or teen treatment program can help families decide which approach will be most effective for a particular teen.
Medication. Although antidepressant medications help many teens, Christensen prefers to utilize other treatment approaches first. Often, by talking through the underlying issues and teaching teens new strategies to regulate their emotions and cope with stress, the symptoms of depression can become more manageable. If a teen is suffering from severe depression or their symptoms don’t improve after spending time in a natural environment and making lifestyle changes, a psychiatric evaluation and course of antidepressant medication may be in order.
Talk Therapy. Traditional talk therapy works for some teens, but the adolescent needs to view therapy as a resource, not an obligation they have to satisfy one hour a week, advises Christensen. Teens who are resistant to treatment, aren’t making progress or are skipping therapy sessions altogether usually need a more intensive intervention.
Wilderness Therapy for Depression. When depression begins to contribute to academic underachievement, social struggles, conflict with the family or substance abuse, it’s time to get help.
Wilderness programs for teens, such as Outback Therapeutic Expeditions, treat the full spectrum of depressive disorders, from major depression to dysthymia (chronic, low-grade depression). These programs are also well-equipped to treat disorders that frequently co-occur with depression, such as Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), learning disabilities, and grief and loss issues.
One of the biggest challenges of adolescence is that teens haven’t yet discovered who they are. Because many teens don’t have a strong sense of self, they may “try on” different personas.
“Adolescents put on a lot of different faces – for their family, their friends and the rest of the world,” said Christensen. “It’s hard for parents and staff in traditional therapeutic settings to know what’s really going on with a teen if the teen doesn’t want to open up.”
In wilderness therapy, teens work through their emotions and negative behaviors 24 hours a day, with guidance from a team of therapists, field instructors and peers. Teens quickly reveal who they are and what they’re struggling with, which allows the staff to make progress more quickly than in traditional therapeutic environments. The staff can then invite parents and other family members into the therapeutic process to work on developing stronger relationships and a healthier home life.
By spending quiet time with themselves in the wilderness, away from the distractions of television, computers and cell phones, teens have a rare opportunity to figure out who they want to be. Their experiences in the wilderness help them discover their passions and their ability to overcome challenges and achieve success in every area of their lives.