Depression in young people is more common than many people might think, with one in four adolescents facing an episode sometime in their teen years.
“It’s kind of a sneaky disorder,” said Sarah Shedd, a Durango-based counselor who works with children and teens. She is a mental health specialist for the Early Childhood Council of La Plata County.
Signs of adolescent depression include: low self-esteem; obsession; weight gain or loss; sleep problems, including sleeping more or not being able to fall asleep; plummeting grades; and a loss of interest in hobbies or activities.
Teens who are depressed also can be defiant and act out against boundaries, structures and rules.
Which sounds like a lot of teens, Shedd admits. The behavior turns into depression or another mental disorder when it lasts for weeks or months and when it stops being a temporary behavior and becomes the teen’s standard attitude.
Shedd spoke about adolescent depression on Feb. 22 at Bayfield High School. Her talk was part of a “conversation cafe” series of discussions about mental health sponsored by a grant from the Colorado Health Initiative.
There are some aspects of depression that aren’t so, well, depressing. For most people, it is a temporary disorder, Shedd said. She termed depression as “a season of life” for many people, and it can occur once and then abate, although it comes and goes for many people.
Exacerbating depression for many of today’s young people are social media, a lot of homework and more pressure to excel in sports and music.
“Kids are so stressed out,” she said; it’s almost not surprising that some of them can’t always handle the pressure.
“There is no freedom in being imperfect as a teenager now,” she added, noting that a lot of embarrassing incidents kids used to be able to forget are now posted within minutes on social media.
To deal with the stress, some kids turn to drinking and drugs, while others exercise for hours a day and obsess about their weight and fitness. Some will start binge reading, where they get almost lost in a world of books, and others turn to social media.
An episode of depression can be triggered by an outside event, such as a suicide by another young person. A school shooting “just down the road,” such as the Dec. 7 episode at Aztec High School where a gunman killed two people, also can increase stress and depressive behavior.
Depression can strike anyone, she said, not just introverts.
Mountain towns also tend to have higher rates of depression, in part because they’re isolated and small, and youths might not think there’s anywhere they can go for help.
“It’s not a weakness for you to reach out for help,” she said.
She said adults such as parents, teachers or parents of friends are often the frontline of defense against depression.
She suggested adults ask, “Tell me about how you are,” to elicit a response.
In addition to counseling, Shedd said some teens are helped actually by helping others.
“It’s a very self-centered disorder,” she said. “Volunteer for people who are hurting.”
That helps young people “get outside of their head” and realize they aren’t the only ones in the world with problems.
On Monday, the American Academy of Pediatrics announced new guidelines that all adolescents 12 and older be screened for depression by pediatricians.
Academy research shows that only half of adolescents with depression are diagnosed before reaching adulthood.
Even when diagnosed, only half of these patients are treated appropriately.
With the new guidelines, pediatricians are being asked to more carefully screen their patients ages 12 and older during their annual checkups.
It’s the first update to the guidelines in a decade and comes amid a rise in suicide rates among adolescents, especially teen girls.