Mental Health Awareness Month: Adolescent Depression and Anxiety

Seventy years ago, the non-profit advocacy group Mental Health America (MHA) held the first Mental Health Awareness Month, also known as Mental Health Month. The goal of Mental Health Awareness Month (MHAM) is to raise awareness about the needs of people living with mental illness and promote the general mental health and well-being of all Americans. To learn more about Mental Health Awareness Month and the theme for this year – #4Mind4Body ­– please have a look at our recent blog post, May is Mental Health Awareness Month.

This post will focus two mental health disorders that typically appear or escalate during adolescence: depressive disorders and anxiety disorders. We’ll address the prevalence of these disorders in the adolescent population, talk about the treatment gap between teens diagnosed with depression and anxiety and those who receive treatment for them, and finally, discuss the treatments currently considered effective by the mental health community.

Adolescence and Mental Health Disorders

As the parent of a teenager, it’s important to understand that during adolescence, the first symptoms of many mental health disorders first appear. Some may appear earlier, by around age six or seven, but those that do appear early often become more severe during adolescence. All parents of teenagers know teens can be moody, emotional, unpredictable, defiant, and detached. They may get angry and slam doors. They may change their appearance, peer group, and interests. All these behaviors are signs of typical teen development. As tough as they may be for you, as a parent, to handle in the moment, it’s helpful to remind yourself that not only are they signs of typical teen development, they are positive changes that your teen has to go through to reach adulthood.

Sure – not every teen gets moody, dies their hair pink, gets their nose pierced, and stomps around the house when things don’t go exactly their way. But if and when they do, you don’t need to worry – unless.

Unless the moods, the anger, and the defiance interfere with day to day life, and – this is a general rule of thumb – happen every day and last for two weeks or more. We need to reiterate that this is a very general rule, and only a mental health professional can diagnose your teenager with a mental health disorder.

If the changes you see reach or exceed that threshold, it’s time to consider consulting a mental health professional for a full evaluation. We’ll provide a link below to help you find a therapist in your area. For now, though, we’ll offer the latest data on the prevalence of anxiety and depression in the adolescent population.

Adolescent Depression and Anxiety: Facts and Figures

Each year, the Child Mind Institute – a non-profit organization “…dedicated to transforming the lives of children and families struggling with mental health and learning disorders…” publishes a report called The Children’s Mental Health Report. One focus of last year’s report was adolescent depression and anxiety. We’ll use data from that report and this study throughout the rest of this post to raise awareness about anxiety and depression in the adolescent population.

Ready for the statistics?

Here we go.

Prevalence of Depression and Mood Disorders: Adolescents

Depressive Disorders by Age

  • 13-14: 8.4%
  • 15-16: 12.6%
  • 17-18: 15.4%
  • Females age 13-18: 15.9%
  • Males age 13-18: 7.7%
  • With severe impairment, female and male, age 13-18: 8.7%

Any Mood Disorder

  • All Teens: 14.3%
    • Age 13-14: 10.5%
    • Ages 15-16: 15.5%
    • Age 17-18: 18.1%
  • Females: 18.3%
  • Males: 10.5%
  • With severe impairment, female and male, age 13-18: 11.2%

Please notice the following details in these statistics:

  1. The prevalence of depressive disorders almost doubles between age 13 and 18, from 8.4% to 15.4%
  2. Prevalence of any mood disorder also almost doubles between age 12 and 18, from 10.5% to 18.1%
  3. The prevalence of both depression and any mood disorder is significantly greater for females than for males:
      • Depression: 15.9% for females, 7.7% for males
      • Any mood disorder: 18.3% for females, 10.5% for males

What this means is that when your pre-teen becomes a teenager, it’s time to start paying close attention to any typical teen developmental factors that overlap with the symptoms of mental health disorders. The period between age thirteen and eighteen is when mood disorders begin to appear, particularly in females.

Next, let’s have a look at the statistics on anxiety.

Prevalence of Anxiety Disorders: Adolescents

Any Anxiety Disorder

  • Age 13-14: 31.4%
  • Ages 15-16: 32.1%
  • Age 17-18: 32.3%
  • Females age 13-18: 38%
  • Males age 13-18: 26.1%
  • Age 13-18, female and male: 31.9%
  • With severe impairment, female and male, age 13-18: 8.3%

These anxiety statistics speak for themselves, for the most part. What’s interesting to note is that although the prevalence of anxiety disorders is over double that of mood disorders for all adolescents between the ages of thirteen and eighteen – 31.9% compared to 14.3% – the percentage with severe impairment is lower: 8.3% (anxiety disorders) compared to 11.2% (mood disorders).

Treatment for Depression and Anxiety

There are several evidence-based therapeutic approaches that can help adolescents manage the symptoms of depression and anxiety and live a life free from major impairment or daily disturbance. However, there is a significant gap between the number of adolescents who suffer from depressive and anxiety disorders and the number who receive treatment. This is known as the adolescent treatment gap. The gap is exacerbated by the fact that of the teens who do receive the proper treatment, many do not complete treatment, which leaves them vulnerable to the negative effects of their disorders and makes them more likely to suffer major impairment as their length of time with symptoms but without treatment increases.

Treatment for Depression and Anxiety in Adolescence: Rates of Initiation and Completion

Depressive Disorders: Initiation

  • Only 40% of adolescents with a depressive disorder get the treatment they need

Anxiety Disorders: Initiation

  • Only 20% of adolescents with an anxiety disorder get the treatment they need

Depressive Disorders: Completion of Treatment

  • Only about 50% of adolescents who begin treatment for mood disorder finish their course of treatment

These statistics are disturbing, because decades of evidence show that treatment for depression and anxiety is effective. Most treatment includes either psychotherapy, medication, or a combination of both. The most common psychotherapeutic modes are Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT). Medications for depression and anxiety are too numerous to mention, but they include: mood stabilizers, anti-depressants, and anxiolytics (anti-anxiety medication).

Treatment Outcomes for Depression and Anxiety

Depression

  • After 12 weeks:
    • 71% of adolescents showed improvements on a combination of psychotherapy and medication
    • 43.2% showed improvement with psychotherapy alone
    • 60.6% showed improvement on medication alone

Anxiety

  • After 12 weeks:
    • 81% of adolescents showed improvements on a combination of psychotherapy and medication
    • 60% showed improvement with psychotherapy alone
    • 55% showed improvement on medication alone

What Parents Can Do

You’re reading this article, which means you’re already doing one of the best things you can do: learning, raising awareness, and honestly trying to figure out if your teen’s behavior is typical or indicative of an underlying or developing mental health disorder. According to the Child Mind Institute, the three most important things parents can do are:

  1. Understand that the adolescent brain is  a brain under construction. The brain develops until around age 25. The period between age 13 and 25 is a period of risk for the development of mental health disorders.
  2. Untreated mental health disorders can lead to substance use disorders, which can cause long-term damage to the developing brain.
  3. Treatment for mental health disorders is effective. This is particularly true for depression and anxiety: teens can find relief from their symptoms and live with their condition without significant impairment if they get and complete treatment.

If you think your teen is showing symptoms of a depressive or anxiety disorder, then it’s time to get a full assessment from a mental health professional. You can find a qualified professional in your area with this psychiatrist finder provided by the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. An assessment performed by a qualified therapist will reveal whether your teen’s behavior is typical or indicates the presence of a mental health disorder. Knowledge is healing, in this case: if your teen needs help, you can start treatment immediately. And if your teen is simply being a teen, then you can help them by supporting them through the challenging changes of adolescence.