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What is Adolescent Depression?

Adolescent depression is defined as a disorder occurring during the teenage years marked by persistent sadness, discouragement, loss of self-worth and loss of interest in usual activities.

Depression can be a transient response to many situations. In adolescents, a depressed mood is common because of the normal maturation process and the stress associated with it, the influence of hormones, and independence conflicts with parents. It may also be a reaction to a disturbing event, such as the death of a relative, a break-up with a boyfriend or girlfriend, or failure at school. Adolescents, who have low self-esteem, are highly self-critical, and who feel little self-control over negative events are particularly at risk to become depressed when they experience stressful events.

True depression in teens is often difficult to diagnose because normal teen behavior is marked by both up and down moods, with alternating periods of feeling ‘the world is a great place' and ‘life sucks'. These moods may last over a period of hours or days.

Persistent depressive mood, faltering school performance, failing relationships with family and friends, substance abuse and other negative behaviors may indicate a serious depressive episode. Excessive sleeping, change in eating habits and criminal behavior may be signs of depression. Another common symptom of depression is an obsession with death. Depression is also commonly associated with violence and reckless behavior, sometimes involving the law. Drug, alcohol, and tobacco abuse frequently coexist with depression.

Long-term depressive illness usually has its onset in the younger teen years. About 15%-20% of American teens have experienced a serious episode of depression, which is similar to the proportion of adults suffering from depression.

Adolescent girls are twice as likely as boys to experience depression. Possible causes include stressful life events, particularly loss of a parent, unstable care-giving, poor social skills, chronic illness and a family history of depression.


Periods of depressed mood are common in most adolescents. However, supportive relationships and healthy coping skills can help prevent such periods from leading to more severe depressive symptoms. Open communication with your teen can help identify depression earlier.

For adolescents with a family history of depression, or with multiple issues, episodes of depression may not be preventable. For these teens, identification and prompt and comprehensive treatment of depression may prevent or postpone further episodes.


If any of these symptoms persist for at least two weeks and cause significant difficulty in functioning, treatment should be sought.


Treatment options for adolescents with depression are similar to those for depressed adults, and include counseling, psychotherapy and antidepressant medication. Family therapy may be helpful if family conflict is contributing to the depression. Support from family or teachers to help with school problems may also be needed. Occasionally, hospitalization in a psychiatric unit may be required for individuals with severe depression, or if they are at risk for suicide.

Call your health care provider if one or more warning signs of potential suicide are present: