When teenage depression strikes
Updated: Jul 5
Why are so many teens depressed and unhappy today? What can we do?
On the surface, Vicky appears to have everything a teenager could want. She is well educated, has two loving parents, a slew of caring friends, and is never wanting for material possessions. Yet she feels empty and disconnected and does not know why.
In her insightful book, The Price of Privilege Madeline Levine, PhD, suggests that when you scratch the surface, you often find that teens like Vicky may be depressed, anxious, and even angry. Some adolescents may also be hiding self-harming behaviors, such as cutting, illegal drug use, and bulimia (1).
The teen suicide rate is soaring, having increased by 30% since 2000 (2). The incidence of suicide and suicide attempts greatly increases during adolescence (3). Suicide is now the second-leading cause of death among children ages 10-24 (4). Also on the rise is self-inflicted injury, with the highest rates among young girls ages 10 to 14. Self-inflicted injury is one of the strongest risk factors for suicide. (4)
Why are so many teens so unhappy? While there can be many causative factors, I believe that parenting styles have undergone significant changes over the years. The world now operates at a frenetic pace and many parents may not have the luxury of being at home as much as they would like to be. Parents are also very busy navigating their own complex life challenges. Even the most loving parents may not be providing enough adult guidance. I am not suggesting that parents should be scheduling and dictating every moment of a child’s life. In fact, often we confuse micro-managing, with guidance. Our kids today have very prescribed and formula-driven lives with extreme pressure to succeed and keep up with the Joneses. I believe that children today have lost the ability to learn how to “figure life out” on their own, including how to cope with challenging situations and difficult relationships. Our society has pushed children to the breaking point to achieve an unrelenting level of perfectionism that does not allow for making mistakes, which is how we all learn important life lessons.
Another parenting challenge (and a therapeutic challenge, too) is that depressed teens are often unable to articulate feelings of sadness or pinpoint a cause. They do not tell their parents they do not feel well because they do not know how or have anything tangible to compare their feelings to. “While many of these teens are verbal and psychologically aware, they don't know themselves very well,” writes Levine. “They lack practical skills for navigating the world; they can be easily frustrated or impulsive; and they have trouble anticipating the consequences of their actions.” Frequently they don't want to let anyone down, so they avoid talking about things that will make them seem weak.
It is important to seek psychiatric help early if you suspect that all is not well, or your teen asks for help. An engaged psychotherapist can help teens reveal and heal the root cause of their depression so they can lead happier, contented lives.
1. Levine M (2008). The price of privilege: how parental pressure and material advantage are creating a generation of disconnected and unhappy kids. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers.
2. Brueck H. The US suicide rate has increased 30% since 2000 and has triped for young girls. https://www.businessinsider.com/us-suicide-rate-increased-since-2000-2018-6.
3. Kidshealth.org. About Teen Suicide. https://kidshealth.org/en/parents/suicide.html.
4. Mercado MC, Holland K, Leemis RW. Trends in Emergency Department Visits for Nonfatal Self-inflicted Injuries Among Youth Aged 10 to 24 Years in the United States, 2001-2015. JAMA. 2017;318(19):1931-1933. https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/article-abstract/2664031.