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Depression is one of the most common forms of mental health distress in the United States. It affects approximately 9.5% of the population in any given year and is sometimes called the the “common cold” of mental illness.
There are many reasons someone might experience depression. In teens and young adults, depression may be due to trauma, environmental stressors, and/or a person’s naturally occurring brain chemistry. Often times, depression is a natural response to a stressful situation such as the death of a loved one, a family divorce, or even a lack of Vitamin D. For some individuals, the “feel good” or “happy” chemicals such as serotonin or dopamine may be out of balance in their brain naturally.
Stemming from the Latin deprimere or ‘press down’ depression is often described as just that; a feeling of emotional weight, loss of passion, or light. It can come in many forms, and last for varied lengths of time. Grief, perinatal or psychotic depression, seasonal affective disorder and bipolar disorder are all different types of depression. Sometimes symptoms can last for more than 2 years (dysthymia).
According to the National Institute of Mental Health, an individual can qualify as “depressed” if they experience some of the following symptoms for more than two weeks:
In teens and young adults, when there are many life and hormonal transitions, these symptoms can be amplified or difficult to identify as depression. But recent studies indicate that 11.5% of teens ages 12-17 experienced at least one major episode in the past year, and as many as 1 in 5 may qualify as clinically depressed.
Depression can be challenging due to the everyday unpleasant experiences listed above, and if left untreated, the disorder can prompt some people to end their lives. Approximately 5,000 young people ages 15-24 commit suicide every year. This number has tripled since 1960 and suicide is now the third leading cause of death in teens and second in college-aged young people.
In response to the symptoms of depression, some people “self medicate”, or attempt to alleviate the unpleasant symptoms with substances. Drugs like marijuana, alcohol, and others can flood the brain with those feel good chemicals in the moment, only to increase the brain’s desire for them and decrease the brain’s natural ability to create and access them later. This can make the dependence on the substance increase, and make the depression worse.
As an individual becomes dependent on the substance to feel good, their stress to obtain it can increase, again worsening the depression. As they lean on a substance to cope with depressive symptoms, they may also miss the opportunity to develop healthy soothing skills like reaching out to friends and family, exercising, or practicing self care. When they need those skills later on, they may not have them, and sink even deeper into depression.
Fortunately, depression is an illness with a variety of therapies and medications that can be used towards treatment. Psychotherapy, mindfulness based practices, and some prescription drugs have been used to help alleviate and/or heal depression.
If you or your loved one is struggling with diagnosed depression, or is suffering from the above symptoms on an ongoing basis, seek support. Your troubled teen may need not just substance support, but depression treatment as well.