The one experience that unites parents of teenagers worldwide is grappling with teenage blues. Happy little kids suddenly metamorphose into sulking aliens and refuse to discuss what is going on in their precocious heads; adolescents become conscious of their individuality and start behaving secretively. Though mood swings are part of growing up pangs, parents feel worried being unaware of the issues that may be bothering their children. Teenagers, on the other hand, believe that they have grown up enough to deal with problems on their own, but often, they lack the emotional maturity to deal with the situations. Moodiness during the wonder years is normal due to hormonal changes in the body but sometimes behavioural changes can mask a serious concern – depression.
About 4 – 5% of pre-pubertal children are affected by depression and the rate is almost the same for boys and girls. However, at the pubertal stage, compared to boys, girls are twice as likely to suffer from depression, and the average age of onset of depression is 14 years. The reason for depression being more common in girls can be attributed to the fact that girls attain physical maturity earlier and their bodies are biologically designed to respond to emotional stimuli necessary for child-rearing from the onset of puberty. Hence girls are more sensitive emotionally.
Hormonal changes do lead to mood swings in adolescents but it tends to stabilize after the initial period of upheaval. The main difference between normal teenage mood swings and depression is the frequency in change of mood. Youngsters going through pubertal mood swings can be sulky or irritable for some time, but once their mood improves, they are back to being happy and outgoing. Depression, on the other hand, is an internalising mood disorder. A teenager suffering from depression will remain downcast or sad for prolonged periods and external stimuli may not improve her/his mood. Teenagers suffering from depression are also at risk of developing anxiety.
General symptoms of depression in teenagers are –
- Withdrawal – The teenager withdraws from social interactions and no amount of coaxing or exciting proposition can influence her/him to be more participative.
- Lack of interest – The child loses interest in activities that he/she found interesting until recently.
- Changes in academic performance – Grades plummet, and she/he loses interest in studies.
- Changes in eating habits – The teenager develops some form of eating disorder. Body image issues also contribute to this and girls are more at risk of developing complications related to anorexia and bulimia.
- Changes in sleeping patterns – Either sleeps too much or has difficulty in falling asleep.
- Self-injury – More commonly seen in girls, self-inflicted injuries like cuts on inner arms using razor blade or knife is often a coping mechanism for depressed teenagers.
- Low self-esteem – Teenagers are at an age when they are just beginning to have questions about individual identity. They want to look and behave like their role models and the disparity between the real and the imagined often leads to low self-esteem. Underestimation and humiliation by adults are also responsible for low self-esteem.
- High sensitivity to negative feedback or rejection.
- Frequent complaints of physical pain like a headache, stomach ache, or body ache.
- Expressing interest in death or having suicidal thoughts.
Depression in teenagers can be manifested either as a major depressive episode lasting for several weeks when some or most of the symptoms listed above are accompanied by other symptoms like crying, sluggishness, hopelessness or worthlessness. The other kind of depression with milder symptoms is called dysthymia and can go on for years if left untreated.
Though depression among teenagers is not a recent phenomenon, modern lifestyle with all its technological enticements is responsible for changes in the physical and emotional development of teenagers who are now leading sedentary lives surrounded by gadgets. Here are seven reasons that are contributing to the increase in a number of youngsters suffering from depression.
1. Peer pressure – The pressure to “fit in” has always been there but never has it been more forceful and evident as it is now. With the gradual downsizing of family and increase in disposable income, ‘need’ is gradually being replaced by ‘want’ in children, which time-constrained parents are happy to fulfil. Early and unregulated exposure to age-inappropriate role models in the society and media define their ideas of “being cool”. Teenagers tend to imitate the lifestyle and culture propagated by these role models. A combination of all these factors in peer groups puts immense pressure on the emotionally or economically weaker adolescents who desperately want to have the same lifestyle and affluence to be considered equals. Personal or parental inability to satisfy the demands of the peer group leads to dejection and low self-esteem in teenagers which can ultimately snowball into full-blown depression.
2. Academic stress – Competition has increased at all academic levels. Compared to the number of students, the number of seats in good schools and colleges has not gone up proportionately. On an average 15 – 20 students compete with each other for every seat in nursery classes of reputed schools. The higher the level of education, the tougher it is to secure a berth. From the very beginning parents push their children towards academic brilliance because the situation now demands “perform or perish”. This stress, coupled with the lack of physical playtime and emotional support, is pushing more and more teenagers towards depression. It is not surprising that fear of academic failure is the most common reason for suicide by teenagers.
3. Sexual abuse – Child sexual abuse is an unfortunate reality, and yet it is a taboo topic in our society. Because we are not comfortable discussing it, most of the time we cannot recognise non-verbal signs of abuse in children. The emotional trauma of being sexually molested at a tender age, coupled with the fear of harm instilled in the child by the perpetrator makes the child suffer in silence leads to long-term depression that continues well into adulthood.
4. Separation of parents –Separation or divorce of parents makes a teenager go through emotional turmoil, and makes him/her feel uncared for and resentful towards either or both parents. If there is an acrimonious custody battle with children caught in the middle of the tussle, it makes them angry and emotionally vulnerable at the same time, and they are unable to share their fears with adults. Children of separated or divorced parents are known to withdraw socially as an escape mechanism and are more susceptible to mood disorders like depression and anxiety.
5. Romantic entanglement – The first flush of youth is the time when boys and girls start having romantic feelings for each other. The raging hormones and pressure from the peers make the need for romantic relationships inescapable. It is all good and sunny until parental objection, academic pressure, love triangles and rejections start breaking young hearts. Teenagers are not emotionally equipped to deal with the complexities of romance gone wrong, but such is their age that they cannot help but fall in love. Failure in such relationships makes teenagers more prone to mood disorders. The situation is aggravated in the case of teenagers with different sexual orientation. Merciless ridiculing and biased stereotyping of homosexuals and transgender people make such teenagers afraid of accepting their sexual identity and disclosing it publicly. Love then becomes a cause of depression.
6. Social media – In the recent years the single largest contributor to increased instances of depression in teenagers can be attributed to the dominance of social media in their lives. Every single moment of life, however trivial or insignificant, is glorified through the use of colourful filters. Instead of learning to defend their individual identities, teenagers are obsessing about the perfect selfie, or idealized images, that they perceive to be most “like” worthy to their peer group. Verbal and non-verbal real-time interactions are being replaced by incessant text messages. Instances of cyber-bullying, stalking, sexting etc. is putting them in unprecedented risk zones. The intense pressure of constant cyber gratification is taking a huge emotional toll on these kids who are now less able to vocalize what they actually feel and are more comfortable updating statuses like “feeling sad” or “lost and lonely”. Needless to say, depression is bound to set in under such trying circumstances.
7. Substance abuse – Peer pressure, unrestricted exposure to cyber-world and slackened authoritarian control are allowing children to begin experimenting with alcohol and recreational drugs much earlier. “Doing drugs for fun”, “drinking alcohol is cool”, “smoking helps bust stress” – these are some of the common phrases teenagers use these days. Addiction to the highs that come with alcohol and substance abuse at an age when they are hardly able to exercise caution or self-restriction is an alarming situation. What starts as fun gradually acquires a rebellious shade and ultimately paves way for withdrawal symptoms associated with alcohol and drug, including depression.
It is not easy for parents, guardians and teachers to monitor teenagers all the time; neither is it healthy. Teenagers have to be taught the essence of being responsible and the importance of discussing problems that may be bothering them. If symptoms of depression are noticed in a teenager, parents should initiate a conversation without intimidating the child. If that attempt fails, the child should be taken to a mental health professional who is usually the best person to diagnose depression. Depression is treatable and the success rate in teenagers is as high as 80%. But the most important thing that parents can do is to remain alert and aware – of situations that can cause depression in teenagers and take proactive steps to curtail the negative effects of those elements. As it is said, prevention is better than cure.