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What Causes Depression and Anxiety in Teens?

Do you ask yourself if your teen’s moodiness or tendency to shut the world out are symptoms of depression or anxiety? Do you wonder if their behavior is normal for a teenager or a sign they need help? You aren’t alone if you’re asking these good questions.

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) reports a rise in teen anxiety disorders. According to NIMH’s research, 38 percent of teen girls and 26 percent of teen boys in the United States suffer from anxiety. Compare that to 19 percent of adults in the United States affected by anxiety disorders, and it’s evident that our teens need our help.

Depression and anxiety often occur together, but they are two separate diagnoses. Depression is more than a teen’s response to grief; it’s a mood disorder marked by a feeling of overwhelming sadness lasting more than two weeks. Anxiety can accompany depression but is characterized by excessive worry. Despite that, their causes, signs, and interventions can overlap, so we will discuss them together. Read on to learn more.  

What Causes Depression and Anxiety in Teens?

All of us have times when we feel down or stressed, but there is a myriad of reasons why rates of depression and anxiety in teens are rapidly surging. One underlying cause is that teens don’t have the same ability to cope with stressors as adults have, and their brains are a big reason for that.

The prefrontal cortex part of teen brains, which is the center for reasoning, planning, and controlling impulses, doesn’t finish developing until the mid to late twenties. Because of this, teens are less likely to consider the consequences of risky behaviors. They process information with the amygdala, which is the emotional part of their brains. Comparatively, adults process information with the thinking part of their brains, the prefrontal cortex.

So with brains that don’t yet have developed thinking centers but have highly engaged amygdalas, our teens are trying to cope with today’s enormous stressors that cause depression and anxiety, including:

  • World events: Before being exposed to a worldwide pandemic causing isolation due to closing schools, remote learning, and social distancing, our students faced media reports of school shootings, lockdowns, and live shooter drills in the event tragedy struck their schools. All of this impacts the mental health of teens.
  • Pressure to succeed: More than ever, teens are under intense competition and pressure to succeed. A 4.0-grade point average is no longer sufficient for college acceptance. Because of competition, students feel pressure to take “weighted” classes such as advanced placement to strive for a GPA higher than 4.0. In addition, they need to participate in varied activities to demonstrate being well-rounded, which eliminates much-needed downtime and contributes to anxiety.
  • Hormones: Hormones are fluctuating for teen boys and girls. Combined immaturity, brain changes, social pressures, and hormones going up and down can be the perfect storm for an anxious teen.

Signs of Anxiety and Depression in Teens

Anyone who has experience with teens understands their emotions can be unpredictable and even confusing sometimes. As a parent, it’s challenging to discern normal teen behavior from behaviors signaling that your child needs help. The following list is not exhaustive, but if your teen is exhibiting any of the following symptoms for more than two weeks, it would be wise to have them evaluated by a mental health professional.

Signs of depression in teens include:

  • Changes in sleep patterns — an inability to sleep or sleeping too much
  • Loss of interest in activities your teen once enjoyed
  • Considerable changes in weight or eating patterns
  • Withdrawing from people and spending more time alone
  • Feelings of sadness or despair lasting more than two weeks
  • Complaints of physical symptoms such as stomachaches, headaches, and fatigue
  • A drop in school grades
  • Starting high-risk behaviors
  • Irritability
  • Suicidal thoughts or self-harm

In addition to the depression symptoms listed above, teen anxiety can also include:

  • Excessive worrying or anxiousness
  • Feeling overwhelmed
  • Experiencing panic attacks or onset of a panic attack such as a fast heartbeat, tingling limbs, etc.
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Feeling “wired” inside

If you notice any of these listed symptoms of depression or anxiety in your child, we will discuss how you can help them next.

How Can I Help My Teen Suffering From Depression and Anxiety?

Teen depression and anxiety are treatable. Yet, according to the 2017 Child Mind Institute Children’s Mental Health Report, 60% of youth with depression go untreated, and 80% of youth with anxiety go untreated. Here are a few ways you can help your teen and prevent prolonged suffering.

Stay engaged and be an emotionally safe person for your teen to confide in.

We understand how difficult it is to see your child exhibiting attitudes and behaviors that accompany teen depression and anxiety. Encourage your teen to express what they’re feeling and resist the temptation to punish, lecture, or offer platitudes. Everyone wants to be heard, including your teen, so the best thing you can do is listen.

Stay alert and trust your gut.

You have instincts as a parent; trust them. Seek the help your child needs if your gut is telling you that your child is really struggling. If your child is depressed and says anything related to self-harm, suicide, or death, take it very seriously. Ask frank questions and get help promptly.

Seek the support of a licensed mental health professional.

If you suspect your child needs help coping with depression and anxiety, seek the support of a mental health professional who understands teens’ unique needs and has experience working with teens.

Our counselors at Eunoia are teen experts and highly experienced. Contact us today for teen counseling services so your child can get the treatment they deserve and develop healthy coping skills during this challenging time.