W hen we think of depression, we usually think of sadness or melancholy.
But during the teen years, depression can take other forms. Moodiness, anger, alcohol or drug abuse, self-mutilation, even rages can be symptomatic of kids who are actually struggling with depression. Such signs are often overlooked by parents, who tend to chalk up their behavior as teen angst or rebellion. But to ignore such symptoms is to risk your child’s health, says counselor Gary Nelson, whose own son battled depression during his teen years.
Nelson says his son was hardly a poster child for depression. Tom was well-liked by his teachers and classmates, he routinely made the honor roll, and he was a member of the high-school baseball team. But “looking back, we could see the signs of anxiety early in his life,” Nelson admits.
Tom’s anxiety and despondence grew as he entered ninth grade. Going to school each morning began to fill him with dread. It also took little for his temper to flare, throwing him into a rage. Nelson tells of one incident when he angrily hurled several baseballs down the hallway of their home, leaving a gaping hole in the wall. Afterwards, he found his son sobbing , saying “This isn’t me.”
“My son was a caring, sensitive kid but the rages would happen following some kind of stressor. And that’s very common. I’ve worked with lots of parents who have been through this same thing,” says Nelson, a pastor at Sand Hill United Methodist Church in Parkersburg, West Virginia.
His son also attempted suicide that year, though, thankfully, they were able to get him the help he needed. Others teens aren’t so lucky.
“We are losing 100 teens a week to suicide,” says Nelson. Thousands more likely die in fatal car crashes (the number one killer of teenagers), sometimes brought on by alcohol, drug use, or self-medication. Kids who are depressed are also more likely to experience self-mutilation and eating disorders. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, one in five young people ages 15 to 24 suffer from depression.
Now, Nelson counsels families and speaks out nationally on teen depression. He writes about his journey in his book, A Relentless Hope: Surviving the Storm of Teen Depression (survivingteendepression.com.) Nelson hopes to reach parents who might be unaware of just how serious teen depression can be.
“No teen wants to be a failure. If you see your child hitting walls, look beyond the behavior. We must help parents see these aren’t behavior problems but response to an illness that’s raging inside them,” says Nelson. If your teen shows signs of depression, call a mental health clinic or speak with your doctor, but get help.
Warning signs of depression
Five or more symptoms are present for more than two weeks:
• a feeling of being down in the dumps or really sad for no reason
• a lack of energy, feeling unable to do the simplest task
• an inability to enjoy the things that used to bring pleasure
• a lack of desire to be with friends or family members
• feelings of irritability, anger, or anxiety (irritability is especially
common in kids and teens)
• an inability to concentrate
• a marked weight gain or loss (or failure to gain weight as expected); too little or too much interest in eating
• a significant change in sleep habits, such as trouble falling asleep or getting up
• feelings of guilt or worthlessness
• aches and pains even though nothing is physically wrong
• a lack of caring about what happens in the future
• frequent thoughts about death or suicide