Teens have a reputation for having mood swings, being withdrawn, and getting emotional over the strangest things. Given their general tumult, how is a parent supposed to tell if their teenager is simply “being a teenager”, or if they might be suffering from clinical depression?

Let’s go over some “danger signs”, which may indicate that your teenager needs, at the very least, a visit to their primary care provider (PCP) to discuss the situation.

  • Talking about suicide is a cardinal sign that a teen needs to be seen right away. If your teen has suicidal thoughts or behaviors, take them immediately to the nearest emergency room, or call the King County Crisis Line at 206-461-3222 or the Nation Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK.
  • Talking about death a lot is cause for concern. Ask your teen straight out if they are talking about death because they are thinking of hurting or killing themself. If not, have them speak with their PCP or a mental health therapist. (It can be normal for teens to enjoy the grisly or macabre side of things, but let a professional decide if further investigation is warranted.)
  • Any self-mutilation, such as cutting or burning, requires evaluation. Most teens who self-mutilate are not suicidal, but it’s best to ask them directly if they are; if so, see the advice above.If they have an injury that won’t stop bleeding, seems extensive, or might need stitches, get them to the ER immediately.If they don’t need an ER trip, you can all the crisis line, take them to their PCP, or take them to a mental health therapist. 
  • A teen who loses interest in activities and hobbies may be exhibiting signs of depression. As teens “try on” identities, it’s normal to switch interests; a teen who once loved debate may discard it for theater. It’s also normal for a teen to love something their parents don’t, like anime or heavy metal music. But if your teenager doesn’t seem  interested in anything anymore, they need to see their PCP or a mental health professional.
  • If your teen’s grades have slipped dramatically, it’s usually a sign that something is wrong. A teen who has always gotten Cs and continues to do so may simply need some educational help. But a straight-A teen who is now getting Cs and Ds needs to be assessed. The reason may be obvious- a recent breakup or death in the family- or it may not be apparent, but it is time to get some professional help.
  • Social withdrawal is a warning sign. If your teen doesn’t want to spend time with you or your family anymore, that may be a normal part of teen development. But are they spending time with their peers? If your teen has stopped enjoying or pursuing social activities, this can be a sign of depression.
  • A change in eating or sleeping patterns can signal depression. Teens aren’t reknowned for getting a healthy amount of sleep, or having a consistent appetite. But a teen who complains they can’t sleep, or sleeps more than 10 hours every day, needs assessment. Likewise, it’s okay for a teen to eat everything in the house one day and eat like a bird the next, but overeating or undereating that is causing weight changes or seems worrisome deserves a visit to their PCP.
  •  Teens can be very irritable, but there’s a limit. A teen who is yelling or cursing at you, throwing things, or crying constantly needs to be evaluated by a PCP or mental health professional. More so than adults, irritability or anger can be signs of clinical depression in teens.

Some of what I’ve mentioned can be attributed to medical problems, social situations like bullying, or environmental changes. But they all deserve a consultation with a health professional, to make sure that your teen isn’t suffering from untreated depression or another mental health disorder.

What are other signs of depression in teens that you can think of? What have you witnessed, or exhibited when you were a teen?