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Depression in Teens and the Role of Stress

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According to the National Institute of Mental Health, approximately 11% of teens have some kind of depressive disorder by the age of 18.  Many more teens have symptoms of depression that, when detected and treated early, may prevent the onset of a major depressive episode.

Triggers and Common Contributing Factors to Teenage Depression
There are a number of things that can trigger depression in teens and sometimes it’s overlooked because symptoms of depression in teens, like boredom and irritability, may appear similar to typical teen behavior. Some common triggers include:

  • Divorce
  • Conflict between parents (divorced or not)
  • Genetics, especially if one or both parents have depression
  • Poor social skills
  • Traumatic life events such as loss of a loved one
  • Chronic illness
  • Bullying
  • Untreated co-occurring disorder such as anxiety or ADHD
  • Lack of coping skills
  • Stress

The Role of Stress
Why are more teens depressed these days? Stress is a big trigger for depression in teens and the level of stress in young people’s lives has significantly increased over the years due to mounting expectations from parents, educators and society in general. There is a known relationship between exposure to chronic physiologic stress in the body, most notably elevated cortisol levels and its impact on the hypothalamic pituitary axis. This means that stress actually impacts physiology!

Academic stress is very common during high school. Parents put pressure on their children to get good grades so they can get into a good college and have a successful career. But take a moment to pause to think about the pressures teens face: getting good grades, SATs, college applications, choosing major, extracurricular activities. Should a 17 year old feel like every test score or college acceptance letter will make or break their future? For many, chronic stress leads to high levels of anxiety about their futures. In the minds of high-achieving students, if they make one mistake their whole future is doomed, which can lead to feeling hopeless (a symptom of depression).

Read more about “honor student stress” in this blog from PsychCentral.

Many people are genetically predisposed to depression, but something needs to trigger it in order for a person to begin experiencing depressive symptoms. A 2013 study from Johns Hopkins School of Medicine found that stress can trigger depression in young adults who are predisposed to it. The research showed that isolation caused an increase in cortisol levels (a stress hormone), which alters dopamine levels. Changes in dopamine levels are associated with depression and other mental disorders and since the adolescent brain isn’t fully developed, it is more sensitive to these changes and can’t shut down the stress response as effectively as adults.

How to Handle Stress

Parents should watch out for symptoms of depression and take them seriously. Untreated depression is dangerous; suicide is the third leading cause of death for people ages 15 – 24. Helping your teen cope and without adding unnecessary stress to their lives is an enormous challenge for many parents. Walking the fine line between encouraging them to do their best in school or extracurricular activities, without making them feel like they have to be perfect is an art not a science.  .

Please take a moment and review the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry “Facts for Families” about teenage depression and stress, especially if you have concerns about your teen.