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Depression Among Our Youth on the Rise

May 1, 2019

A new study from the National Institute of Mental Health reports alarming increases in depression among adolescents. About 3 million 12- to 17-year-olds have had at least one major depressive episode within the past 12 months. That is about 13% of young people in that age range. It’s easy to let those number slide by. Let’s repeat: 13% of adolescents will experience an episode of major depression in the last year.

Major Depression

Let’s clarify a few things about major depression.

Major depression occurs in episodes. This means a period of at least two weeks when a person experiences a depressed mood or loss of interest or pleasure in daily activities and had symptoms such as problems with sleep, eating, energy, concentration, or self-worth. Because we associate depression with sadness, it is important to know that depression, particularly among children and teenagers, often doesn’t look so much like sadness as it does intense irritability. Also—and this is particularly true of children with depression—sometimes a prominent symptom of depression is frequent stomachaches and headaches without medical explanation. Youth may sleep at odd times of the day and isolate themselves from adults, particularly family members. They may, however, maintain an intense desire to be with peers.

A major depressive episode is dangerous. Among teenagers, depression is often associated with accompanying anxiety, substance abuse, and other difficulties. At the same time, we are seeing these alarming numbers about depression among youth, we also have noted sharp increases in suicide rates among almost all demographic groups in the USA, including children and teenagers. A leading cause of suicide is undetected and untreated mental illness, including depression.

Because we often expect teenagers to be moody and irritable, it can be difficult to know whether they are experiencing clinical depression. Consequently, many depressed kids don’t get the help they need. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that only 20 percent of youth suffering from a mental health disorder, such as depression, receive treatment for their condition. Even when we know our children are depressed, getting prompt care can be difficult.

We cannot be sure what is causing these increases in depression among youth. But there are some themes that often come up in scholarly work in this area.

Social media, hyper-connectedness, and overstimulation.

These are almost always cited among the possible causes of depression among youth. It is common for youth to measure their worth based on the “likes” and comments they get from others. Sometimes youth (and adults!) treat each other cruelly on social media in a way they would not do in face-to-face interaction. Some argue that online communities are simply not a substitute for “real-life” interaction.

Dangerous times/uncertain future.

No generation is immune to worry and anxiety about national and world events. The current generation is coming of age when mass shootings and terrorist attacks are a grim reality. Worry about the environment and climate change may be on the minds of many young people, who wonder about the future quality of life on the planet.

Sleep deprivation.

Sleep problems are associated with health problems and cognitive and psychological impairment. For all practical purposes, all teenagers are sleep-deprived. We have known for years that teenagers need an average of slightly more than 9 hours of sleep a night to avoid sleep deprivation. Almost no teenagers get that, especially during the school year. They are biologically programmed to make it virtually impossible to go to sleep before about 11:00 PM. Early school start times require teenagers to wake up before they are able to get the needed amount of sleep. Much is known about the wide range of difficulties this causes teenagers, including increased vulnerability to mental illness.

What can we do?

We should begin by recognizing that no family, and no person, is immune to mental health disorders. As always, if you ever find yourself or your loved one in immediate danger or in an emergency, call 911. But let’s all remember that these problems can be diagnosed and effectively treated. If you are concerned about your child’s mental and emotional well-being begin by contacting your child’s physician. Pediatricians deal with mental and emotional problems among their patients on a daily basis. They are able to screen for mental health disorders and can refer to qualified youth-oriented mental health professionals. Never hesitate to begin by calling your child’s doctor.

 

Let’s end with a prayer.

 

Father,

You entrust your children to our care.

Help us have the strength and wisdom

to recognize that all of us, even our children,

must struggle with illness.

Help us to know that just as the hearts

you give us can yield to disease,

so it is with our minds and our spirits.

Help us to have the courage to fold

Into the love and care we give our children,

a knowledge that they may develop

mental illness and disorders.

Help us to work to seek out the care our children need,

and to seek out a community and nation when

all of us are able to receive that care.

 

Amen.

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