HOLLISTON — The Holliston Public Library last week hosted a Zoom panel on teen depression and how adults can help.
The workshop was co-sponsored by Families for Depression Awareness – a Waltham-based non-profit organization that provides education, training and support to families regarding depression and bipolar disorder. It was launched in 2010 and opened the conversation about mental health to over 36,000 people.
Presenters included Chelsea Goldstein-Walsh, a licensed independent clinical social worker, and Jessenia Urrea, teen depression program coordinator at Families for Depression Awareness.
The event highlighted the need to talk about teen depression to reduce the stigma surrounding mental health, recognize the warning signs surrounding depression, and support teens when they are younger rather than older.
According to a survey by Families for Depression Awareness, depression is common among teens. Seventy-five percent of cases found in adults date back to their teenage years.
Additionally, teens who look up to celebrities as role models may find that even famous, high-achieving people live with depression.
After introducing the concept, Walsh discussed the key factors that can lead to depression in teens. These include genetic predisposition to mental illness, brain chemistry or neurological factors, trauma or neglect, and stressful life events. Thus, both external and internal factors can contribute to depression.
Walsh also discussed how a teen’s brain development can be hampered by stress and depression.
“The prefrontal cortex is a part of the brain that develops during adolescence and is responsible for higher-level cognitive functions like decision-making, planning, and more. A sustained elevation in cortisol or the stress hormone can impair brain development and function,” she said.
Consequences, signs of depression
Walsh said depression disproportionately affects minority groups and populations.
The rate of young black people dying by suicide is increasing faster than any other racial or ethnic group. LGBTQ+ youth are more likely to commit suicide and view it as nearly four times the rate at which the average youth population views it. And continued exposure to school violence has led many teenagers to have suicidal thoughts.
However, the presenters said that there are some symptoms of depression that adults can recognize to treat teen depression:
- Irritable and grumpy moods. If teenagers express anger, sadness and despair for more than two weeks, it is a good determinant that something is wrong.
- Loss of interest in sports or other activities that were once practiced.
- Withdrawal from friends and family, as well as relationship issues.
- Changes in sleep patterns or eating habits.
- Lower than normal energy levels.
- Personal hygiene is not maintained and there is a feeling of low self-esteem.
- The ability to concentrate or make decisions seems to be lost.
- The experience of somatic symptoms such as non-specific aches and pains in the body.
Depression can cause teens to consider suicidal thoughts and express disturbing behavior. Writing about or obsessing over death, giving away favorite things, and even saying things like “you’d be better off without me” can be important cues for adults to notice.
Things to do to prevent suicide:
- Privately ask the teen if they are considering suicide. Give them your full attention.
- Listen to them carefully and look for lethal means they might use – weapons, pills or other means. Stay calm and don’t judge them. Remove lethal means from their environment.
- Act immediately. Seek help by phoning their clinician, calling 911, or taking the teen to the local hospital emergency room. Many crisis resources are available online.
Diagnosis and treatment
Walsh stressed that the first step toward diagnosing the condition is to get an evaluation. Doctors can rule out other issues such as thyroid problems and learning disabilities, making sure it is indeed depression they are treating.
The second step is to develop a treatment plan.
“For most people, medications and some kind of talk therapy work well for depression,” Walsh said.
She highlighted the different types of therapy available, including cognitive behavioral therapy, brief solution-focused therapy, and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy.
Walsh emphasized the need for good sleep, exercise, appetite, and mindfulness.
She said healing is not linear and listening carefully to the teen’s concerns is important. If the treatment does not work, one can also look for alternatives.
Adapted communication tools
Being an “active listener” to a teen’s mental health issues can be an important way to help. This includes:
- Look at the person you are talking to. Give them your full attention.
- Focus on what the person is saying, not your own reaction or how you will react.
- Demonstrate through facial expressions, nodding, and leaning forward that you are actively listening to the adolescent.
- Don’t interrupt.
- Before responding, share with the teen what you heard to confirm that you understood the message. Ask questions to clarify.