When I was 5 years old, I was a generally happy kid. I colored at our kitchen table, and danced around our coffee table. I sang nonsensical songs into the backside of our vacuum cleaner and told ghost stories into the bright, light side of a flashlight. And I put on plays. Cutesy numbers that involved love, marriage, and a plastic baby in a baby carriage.
But then something changed. That carefree girl I was couldn’t be farther from the woman I became.
Of course, I don’t know exactly when this shift occurred — or why — but I do know that sometime between middle school and high school the excitement I once felt became anger. The joy I once felt became angst, and I became embarrassed.
I was solemn and sad and anxious to the core.
That said, I know many teenage girls (and boys) experience similar feelings. Puberty is a bitch. But the shift for me was more than “growing pains.” There was a voice in my head telling me I wasn’t good enough. I wasn’t smart enough. She told me no one liked me — no one cared about me — and she told me things were hopeless.
There was darkness in my life that I couldn’t see past. I wasn’t just drowning in sorrow, I was being suffocated by it.
And there was pain. I struggled to breathe and just function. In those dark days, I struggled to get out of bed.
But no one knew I was struggling because I wasn’t a “textbook” case. My grades were not faltering. I didn’t appear to be flailing or failing — instead of performing poorly at school, I excelled in it. The classroom became my only outlet. It was the only place (and space) in which I felt I had control — and I wasn’t engaged in high-risk behaviors. (I didn’t try drinking or drugs until I was 18 years old.)
So how do you know your teen is depressed? Keep your eye out for the following symptoms:
Hostility, Irritability, Or Anger
It is no surprise that teenagers are often angry or, at the very least, plagued by a short fuse — and for good reason. The developmental years are tough and most adolescents are struggling to find their place not only amongst their peers, but in the world. But if your teen seems overly irritable, it may be cause for concern. According to Help Guide, depressed teenagers are particularly “grumpy, hostile, easily frustrated, [and/]or prone to angry outbursts.”
2. Withdrawing From Family And Friends
Another common symptom of depression is withdrawing from family and friends. However, as Help Guide notes, teenagers withdraw differently than their adult counterparts. In other words, “while adults tend to isolate themselves when [they are] depressed, teenagers usually keep up…some friendships. However, teens with depression may socialize less than before, pull away from their parents, [and/]or start hanging out with a different crowd.”
3. Changes In Eating And/Or Sleeping Habits
Like adults, children and young adults struggling with mental illness may experience a decreased appetite, or an insatiable one. They may find sleep difficult and/or they may experience such fatigue and exhaustion that the smallest tasks become a monumental chore.
4. Changes In School Performance
Many teenagers struggling with mental illness also struggle in school. In fact, one of the most common “warning signs” of teenage depression is a sharp and sudden drop in grades, but did you know an acute upswing in grades can also be a sign of mental illness? It’s true. (I became overly invested in school because it was the only place I was able to feel somewhat decent and in control.) As such, parents should keep an eye out for any extreme change in school performance or behavior.
5. Loss Of Interest In Activities And/Or Hyperactivity
Another common symptom a teenage mental illness is a loss of interest in once beloved activities and/or a general lack of enthusiasm and motivation. However, according to Everyday Health, “the signs of mental illness in children vary by age and type of illness” and while a loss of interest may be a warning sign for one child, any “extremes or peculiarity” is cause for concern, and sometimes hyperactivity is just as alarming as a lack of activity.
6. Talk Of Death Or Suicide
One of the most obvious (and, in many cases) alarming signs something is wrong is talk of death, fascination with death, and/or talk of suicide. Of course, many believe that those who talk about suicide are the least likely to attempt suicide; they believe these individuals are seeking attention and nothing more, but according to the Nevada Office of Suicide Prevention, this is a myth and “talking about suicide can [actually] be a late sign in the progression towards a suicide attempt.” As such, every threat should be taken seriously.
That said, there are other “warning signs” your teen is struggling with depression, i.e., teens often exhibit extreme sadness or a sense of hopelessness. They have a general lack of motivation, or they exhibit signs of restlessness or agitation. They dabble in drugs or alcohol, and sometimes they have physical symptoms. They complain of cramps, aches, and bodily pain.
So how do you know if your teen is struggling? How do you know if they are sick? Well, you talk to them. You engage them and — on occasion — you trust your gut.
If something feels off, it probably is.
For more information about teenage depression, contact the National Youth Crisis Hotline: 1-800-448-4663.