Falling grades, fitful sleep and irritability are often dismissed as symptoms of being a teenager. But sometimes they are symptoms of a more serious disease: depression.
According to Mental Health America, an organization dedicated to educating Americans about mental health, teenage depression is increasing at an alarming rate, and one in five teenagers suffer from it.
CHS is no exception. An Observer survey this month of 100 students found that 76 percent believe that teenage depression is epidemic and 38 percent claim to suffer from it.
Teen Angst vs. Teen Depression
During high school years, it is difficult to decipher which feelings classify a person as depressed and which are simply growing pains caused by hormones.
According to Chevy Chase psychiatrist Laurel Hodas, depression can be distinguished from milder afflictions by its persistence.
“When you have simple angst, you can snap out of it and enjoy things,” Hodas said. “Depression is more global and long-term.”
There are different degrees of depression.
“Depression is really on a spectrum,” Chevy Chase psychiatrist Antonia Baum said. “It goes from a condition we call ‘dysthymia,’ which is a lower level of depression, to the other end of the spectrum, where there are episodes called ‘major depressive episodes’—and there is a whole lot in between.”
Reasons Teens Become Depressed
One thing is certain: teens are particularly vulnerable to the disease. A recent study done by researchers at the University of Pittsburgh showed that adolescents are more likely to become depressed than adults.
“There is a lot of research now to indicate that the adolescent brain is not fully developed,” Baum said. “There is an immaturity to it that leads adolescents to make poor judgments that make them susceptible to depression. That’s purely biological.”
At CHS, stress appears to be a prevalent cause of depression. Of the students surveyed, 39 percent cited “stress” or “school stress” as a major reason behind the problem.
Teens try on different personas almost like the latest fashion, which can lead to self-doubt and confusion.
“Trying on a new identity can lead to existential crises,” Baum said. “People are often struggling with sexual orientation and sexual identity as teenagers; if there’s a gender identity or sexual orientation issue, oftentimes in teenagers that’s when depression sets in.”
In addition, losing friends can trigger depression in teenagers.
According to sophomore Val Wear, she became depressed because she lost friends in a time of need.
Symptoms of Teen Depression
The basic symptoms of depression include overwhelming sadness, lethargy, anger and withdrawal from friends and family.
According to an article by psychologist Berney Wilkinson on theledger.com, an online newspaper, teenagers often feel alone and think nobody has gone through their experiences before.
Grades can begin to fall, not due to laziness, but due to the overwhelming nature of depression.
“Teachers ask, ‘Why did you fail this test?,’” sophomore Tara Lattimer said. “I can’t just come out and tell them my whole life story. When I try to tell them it’s because I can’t escape depression, it comes out as a jumble and sounds like an excuse.”
How Teens Can Recover
According to Baum, the most effective method to recover is talking to a friend, a relative or a mental health professional.
“Talking to somebody is the best way to cope with depression because it helps you feel like you’re not alone,” Baum said. “It’s scary to feel angry and frustrated and sad and not really understand why.”
It is also important to locate the aspects of one’s life that triggered depression and improve them.
According to an article by psychiatrist David Mrazek on mayoclinic.com, a medical research website, the key to overcoming depression is taking small steps. While it is difficult to improve one’s life all at once, exercising and trying to improve one’s social life are great ways to begin.
Above all, the first step of recovery is realizing that depression is not something to be ashamed of.
“Depression is a medical illness, not a weakness,” Hodas said. “A lot of people feel that they can hold themselves up by their boot straps, but when they’re clinically depressed, not just teenage angst, there are no boot straps. They really do need to get help. People who have other medical illnesses get help all the time, so this should just be another medical illness that needs to be treated by a doctor.”