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When Should a Parent Seek Professional Help for a Teen with Depression?

Written by Evolve's Behavioral Health Content Team​:

Alyson Orcena, LMFT, Melissa Vallas, MD, Shikha Verma, MD, Ellen Bloch, LCSW, Lianne Tendler, LMFT, Megan Johnston, LMFT

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Most parents understand teenagers will display the symptoms of depression – and possibly additional mental health disorders – at some point during adolescence, which child development experts define as the time between ages twelve and eighteen. Parents know and understand emotions may fluctuate dramatically during this time because they were teens once, themselves. They also know that for most people, emotional ups and downs are part of the process. And for the most part, they know things will probably even out by early adulthood. As time passes, teens learn, grow, and develop coping skills to handle both internal and external stressors. The upheaval eventually subsides – but while it’s happening, it may be hard to keep perspective and understand when a teen is just being a teen, and when they need enhanced support.

So how do parents know what’s typical adolescent development and what might indicate a mental illness?

Here’s an initial answer: in a typically developing adolescent, symptoms of depression don’t happen every day and they don’t last a long time. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – Volume Five (DSM-V) indicates that major depressive order can be clinically diagnosed if an individual displays five of the primary symptoms of depression every day for two weeks or more.

If you’re concerned your teen may have clinical depression, we can help you decide whether you need to seek professional help.

It starts with understanding the symptoms.

Clinical Depression: Signs and Symptoms

The DSM-V refers to depression as major depressive disorder and defines it as “…an overwhelming feeling of sadness, isolation, and despair that last two weeks or longer at a time.”

Symptoms of major depressive disorder include:

  1. Persistent sad or empty mood
  2. Loss of interest in or inability to enjoy favorite hobbies, sports, and activities
  3. Persistent or daily crying
  4. Frequent or daily feelings of hopelessness or pessimism
  5. Frequent or daily irritability, hostility, or anger
  6. Persistent feelings of guilt or worthlessness
  7. Decreased energy or fatigue
  8. Social isolation and impaired communication
  9. Persistent boredom and low energy
  10. Extreme restlessness and agitation
  11. Difficulty concentrating, remembering things, or making decisions
  12. Major changes in sleeping patterns – insomnia or excessive sleeping
  13. Major changes in eating patterns – extreme loss or gain of weight
  14. Thinking about, talking about, or attempting suicide*
  15. Physical symptoms such as headaches or stomach aches without a clear physical cause, which don’t respond to typical treatment

*Note: If you think your teen is in immediate danger, please call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room immediately. You can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

Please note that a clinical diagnosis only requires an individual to experience one of the first two symptoms, but it must persist daily for two weeks or more for it to meet the criteria for clinical depression. The other symptoms on this list may or may not be present, and they may occur alone or in combinations unique to the individual.

What You Can Do

If you read the list above and think your teen meets the criteria for clinical depression, the first thing parents should know is that depression can be treated successfully. The earlier the treatment begins, the better. The second thing to know is that you need to take action. Make an appointment for a formal assessment administered by a mental health professional as soon as possible. You know your child, but it’s best to get expert help. Most treatment includes talk therapy, medication, or some combination of the two. To learn more about depression in teens, statistics on prevalence, and details about treatment, please read our articles “Is My Teen Depressed or Just Moody?” and “Mental Health Awareness Month: Adolescent Depression and Anxiety.”

Our Behavioral Health Content Team

We are an expert team of behavioral health professionals who are united in our commitment to adolescent recovery and well-being.

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