Imagine this: you’re feeling lonely. You have connection to a lot of potential friends but you’re not sure if they are ones you can count on or not. You’re constantly second guessing yourself, unsure of who you really are anymore. It’s difficult to get up in the morning, but most nights you can’t fall asleep easily either.
Your body is seemingly rejecting the normal routines you once had with a newfound increased appetite and lack of desire to move. In general, your mood has been low and at points much more unstable. What am I describing here?
Depending where you’re coming from, I might be describing your teenage years, or I might be describing depression. For many adolescents, teenage years present a major challenge and a lot of it can look like depression. Even more so, then, when a teenager does struggle with Depression, it can be an incredibly challenging exacerbator to an already difficult life stage!
Depression in Teenagers
Here are some ways that depression in teenagers is different from depression in adults.
The Social World
One of the hallmarks of depression is a cycle of negative self talk. People struggling with clinical depression often feel like they aren’t good enough, or they struggle with anxiety made worse by a lack of motivation.
Maybe these thoughts are ones of comparison, looking outward at those around you and relating to them based on their achievements. It is very easy to see what others have accomplished and feel like you will never get to that stage, even if your own personal history might prove to you otherwise.
Depression is a deceiving voice that speaks into our minds and souls and is able to convince us of the existence, and then amplify, our own inadequacies. One of its greatest tools is that of comparison, adjusting our gaze outward and our judgements inward.
Now let’s see how this can be made worse if you are a teenager. First of all, adolescence is a time of significant transition. For boys, it’s often a sign of pride to be first into puberty. Well, maybe not first — the first voice crack will always instill a classroom of laughs, but generally being early into puberty is seen as a “good” thing for boys.
For girls on the other hand, research has shown that an early start often comes with greater difficulty adjusting to changes. This means that girls showing physical changes and boys late to the game will often find themselves comparing themselves to their peers.
For girls, it might feel like a wind they can’t stop, pushing them into womanhood where they would more desperately want to stay a child as long as possible. For boys, it can become lonely as all your friends spike in height, their voices drop, and they begin to grow facial hair. It might begin to feel like they missed the boat and life is going on without them.
Since teenagers all hit these points at different times, it can be incredibly frustrating and hard to adjust — and all this is just baseline adolescence. Now let’s throw some accelerant on in the form of clinical depression, and this can be an incredibly difficult time.
Another factor in the modern social world is that of online social networks. Until about 20 years ago, if you were being bullied or social situations were difficult, you could pretty well escape those by coming into the comfort of your own home. They might follow you a block from school or so, but generally bullies had other things to do.
Now, however, in our incredibly connected world, bullies can follow their victims home and barrage them with words and tear them down all day. The classic phrase “sticks and stones can break my bones but words will never hurt me” has got to be one of the most untrue proverbs ever recited. Bones heal and the pain fades from memory, but words can carry lasting emotional scars that will be carried into adulthood.
With smart phones and things like Facebook and Twitter, those direct messages can come into a teenager’s inbox anywhere, any time of the day. Where before you could run from you bully, now they can reside in your pocket. Where your room may have been a refuge, now it can become an isolating echo chamber of mean words and hurtful thoughts, isolated from the potential support found from family members elsewhere in the house.
Another element of social media that makes depression worse for teenagers is the very nature of what gets posted online. We don’t tend to post pictures of ourselves looking like we do on an average-to-bad day. When was the last time you saw (outside of someone selling beauty products) an Instagram post of someone showing the bags under their eyes because they couldn’t sleep since their allergies were so bad?
In general, things like Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook, and Twitter aren’t showing accurate depictions of our lives. I heard it said once that these platforms cause us to compare our day to day lives to everyone else’s highlight reel.
How good does it feel when you see everyone on vacation, being sent flowers by their significant other, getting that new job or promotion, showing off their makeup that was just on-point, or playing with their cute new puppy when you yourself are home alone because you couldn’t get anyone to hang out and you’ve now decided right about now’s the time to give Friends its sixth watch through? Social media is fertile ground for comparison, and this mixed with depression can be a painful mixture.
Who Am I?
The teenage years are ones of exploration. You find your identity, find your interests, find what you believe, and find who you can rely on. Depression, on the other hand, inhibits all of these processes. While it is natural to wonder who you are, depression makes you second guess who you’ve been and who you will be.
For teenagers suffering from depression, this natural development can get slowed down and cause insecurities to arise. This leads to greater anxiety and lack of self-reliance that will carry into adulthood. Think of it like training for an athlete — a little bit of pain and soreness in your muscles is a good thing and a sign of growth. In order to get stronger and more sure of your abilities, you have to stretch your limits and go out of your comfort zone. However, if you try to do this while nursing an injury, you can end up causing longer term damage that is much harder to recover from. In the same way, dealing with depression alongside the natural development of identity can cause problems later in life and inhibit personal growth.
Another element for teenage years is that this is the period of time when we usually figure out our sense of sexuality and gender expression. For anyone who doesn’t feel they fit the standard cis-gendered (identifying as the same gender as your sex organs), heterosexual norm, they can begin to struggle with self identity. Further, in religious contexts it might not feel safe to even ask questions about this, leading to further isolation and loneliness.
Even for cis-gendered heterosexuals, the growing sexual urges can cause a lot of frustration and with no outlet for newfound drives, they might begin to develop an internalized hatred of the self for having urges in the first place in the absence of anyone to talk about this with. It’s no wonder that teenagers questioning their sexuality have a higher risk of depression.
According to the Center for Disease Control (2017) “LGB youth are at greater risk for depression, suicide, substance use … Nearly one-third (29%) of LGB youth had attempted suicide at least once in the prior year compared to 6% of heterosexual youth.”
We must acknowledge that this is a troubling statistic and one that warrants pursuing health for teenagers struggling with their sexuality. The struggle to understand yourself often exacerbates depression and can begin a vicious cycle of self doubt and insecurity.
While thus far the conversation has been how difficult depression is for teenagers, there is hope! For teenagers dealing with depression, finding help can set them up for success later in life. The research shows that for the treatment of clinical depression, getting into regular therapy mixed with taking an antidepressant often had the best outcomes.
Many might be wary of taking an antidepressant during their formative years, and while it is safe under the guidance of a well-trained psychiatrist or nurse practitioner, great benefits can come from therapy alone. Often teens feel like they don’t have someone who will listen to them without judgment.
While ideally teenagers and adolescents would feel safe talking to their parents or family members, great benefits exist from talking to a professional as well and this can feel much less intimidating. Further, in the state of Washington children as young as 13 have the right to full privacy in counseling, even from their parents. While this might seem scary or odd to you if you are a parent, this allows them to feel safe and receive effective treatment without fears of repercussions (exceptions exist to confidentiality around safety, as with all therapy).
As further hope, addressing teenage depression can help the individual create a strong sense of self that is carried with them into their adult life. By pushing through the pain and suffering of depression as a teenager, they have the opportunity to really set their lives on a positive trajectory.
By coming into therapy, they can help themselves to discover who they are, feel safe and secure, and set long-term goals for themselves. In fact, people often experience bouts of depression multiple times throughout the course of their life. By learning young what helps them during depression, when the next bout comes on they will be able to utilize coping skills they learned long ago and be able to push through these bouts faster and with more resiliency.
By coming into counseling and having a positive experience as a teenager, they will be more likely to do so as an adult since they know it is safe and can really help. Extending into the present, the social impact of being open to counseling can permeate through their friend group and they might be able to encourage their friends to seek help as well. Just by one individual teenager going into counseling, I have seen a cascading effect of increasing mental health in local communities. Once the stigma is pushed through, there is often much more openness to recovery.
So What To Do?
If you are a teenager, a friend of a teenager, or a family member of a teenager, please begin by seeking out help! Counseling is a safe place to be heard, learn more about yourself, and learn skills to help cope with the depression. Maybe you’ve been waiting for someone to push you — consider this your push! Maybe you’ve been hesitant to suggest it — don’t let your anxiety get in the way of their recovery! They will thank you for the push in the long term I am sure.
It can be hard to admit we need help, but the teenage years are so fertile for personal and mental health growth that depression need not be a barrier to a fulfilling life. Feel free to reach out to myself here at Seattle Christian Counseling or look for another therapist in your area and begin your mental health recovery and growth today.
Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Health. Center for Disease Control. (2017, June 21). Retrieved October 20, 2017, from https://www.cdc.gov/lgbthealth/youth.htm
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