Why Have Teen Depression Rates Been Increasing?

by Polaris Teen Center | Aug 30, 2017 | Depression, Mental Health, Resources

depression in teens increasing

Though teenagers now have more access to mental healthcare resources than they have ever had before, there is currently a major problem facing many Americans. Teenage depression rates have been gradually increasing over the past few decades, and parents, psychologists, and clinicians everywhere have been trying to figure out why.

Though there are a number of complicating factors involved in the process of gathering statistics—changing definitions of depression, changing criteria for diagnosis, increased access to a professional capable of diagnosing, etc.—there are many other factors, it seems, that we simply cannot dismiss. Teenage depression is not something that ought to be taken lightly, and because of this, it is important to understand some potential root causes.

First, what is the modern definition of depression?

Before we can establish an objective definition of what depression is, it might be easier to begin by defining what depression isn’t. Depression is not merely the presence of temporary feelings of sadness or an occasional lack of motivation. Most teens feel sad and unmotivated from time to time—doing so can even be considered a normal and healthy demonstration of having a range of emotions. Most teenagers are not chronically depressed.

But current estimates claim that at any given point in time, as many as 4% of teenagers in the United States suffer from chronic depression, also known as major depressive disorder. Furthermore, up to 16% of all people will experience some degree of depression symptoms at some point in their lives. Chronic depression is distinctively different from the occasional feelings of sadness a typical teenager might experience in the sense that they are persistent and relentless, and may even be caused by a permanent imbalance of chemicals.

Many teenagers will feel sad from time to time, or wake up in the morning and simply not have the motivation to go to school that day. But for the 4% of teenagers who are currently severely depressed, they are likely feeling sad nearly all of the time and are almost never motivated to go to school or even do tasks as simple as getting up.

Depression—as it ought to be formally defined—is a pervasive condition characterized by at least two consecutive weeks of “low mood”. A low mood is one in which the individual feels profound sadness, a lack of motivation, low energy, and low self-esteem. According to nearly all academic research on the subject, depression rates in the United States are higher than they were 50 years ago, and teenagers represent the age demographic most likely to suffer from depression.

Why are teenagers particularly likely to experience symptoms of depression?

Being a teenager—depressed or not—can be an incredibly difficult experience. The teenage years are characterized by a tremendous amount of changes, and these changes can be both difficult to embrace and difficult to cope with. The teenage years, for just about anyone, represent a rather awkward transition from childhood to adulthood—and depression, undeniably, can only prove to make things more difficult.

Though adults and even children can also suffer from the symptoms of major depressive disorder (MDD), there are a number of reasons that teenagers are uniquely likely to be depressed:

  • Chemical, hormonal, and biological changes associated with puberty.
  • Increased likelihood to be victims of verbal bullying, physical bullying, and cyberbullying.
  • Increased likelihood to suffer from body dysmorphia and other psychological conditions associated with depression.
  • An ongoing uncertainty of their self-identity, and a continued lack of self-esteem.
  • Feelings of hopelessness, existential crisis, and uncertainty associated with coming into adulthood.
  • Potential exposure to certain drugs, alcohol, and other sources of chemical interference.

Though there is no single source that can be identified as the underlying cause of major depressive disorder, there are numerous factors that can potentially trigger or exacerbate the presence of the condition in a given individual. Teenagers are uniquely exposed to a number of these factors (such as those mentioned above), and are thus more likely to suffer from chronic depression.

Why have teenage depression rates been rising?

Not only are teenagers more likely to suffer from the symptoms of depression than other demographics, but—as many clinical studies will suggest—today’s teenagers are more likely to suffer from depression than teenagers of generations past. Though it can be difficult to compare data from different eras, there are still numerous factors that some psychologists believe are indeed having a negative influence on today’s teens.

  • Changes in technology and methods of socialization
  • The increased potential risk of pharmaceutical over-prescription (this is not to say that all prescriptions are bad, but some can be dangerous)
  • Global terror, climate change, political turmoil, and other world events that can promote a generally negative outlook of the future (exacerbated by increased media pressures)
  • Stagnating standards of living in the United States
  • Increased external factors that can potentially trigger feelings of hopelessness and isolation
  • Numerous others

Just as there is no single variable that can be isolated as the sole cause of depression, there is not a single variable that can be isolated as the sole reason depression rates have been increasing among today’s teenagers. But, when all of these unique variables—who perhaps in a vacuum may have a more minimal effect—are combined together, the outcome can be rather grim.

The numbers don’t lie. Teenage depression rates have been demonstrably on the rise in recent decades, and because of these, it seems we ought to collectively commit ourselves to finding a real solution.

What can be done to combat teenage depression?

Combating adolescent depression is no simple task, but there indeed several things that can be done to make things better for our troubled teens.

When addressing teenagers as a collective group, it seems increasing access to depression treatment centers for teens and increasing education on the topic are both real and viable solutions. The better educated teenagers can become on the formal definition, symptoms, and potential causes of depression, the more likely the will be able to seek appropriate treatment when necessary.

One of the problems with treating depression is that many individuals do not even realize they are formally depressed. These individuals assume their constant feelings of low energy and existential dread are completely normal parts of life, and that they would be burdening their loved ones if they were to say anything about it. But were these same individuals empowered and informed on ways in which they can get better, then maybe, just maybe, they wouldn’t have to continually be suffering in silence.

What should I do if I believe that my teenager is suffering from depression?

If you believe your teenager is one of many who is suffering from the symptoms of chronic depression, don’t let them suffer in silence. Offer yourself as an open resource, and try to be a part of the long-term solution.

Begin by talking to your teen about how they are doing, how they are feeling, and what they have been thinking about. Though many teenagers may ignore or shrug of their parents, it is good to at least try to begin by establishing an open, non-judgmental, sort of dialogue.

If any of the aforementioned symptoms—low mood, low self-esteem, low motivation, unexplained sadness—persist for more than two weeks, it may be a good idea to seek the help of a licensed professional. These professionals have been specifically trained to identify, diagnose, and treat symptoms of depression in a way that can uniquely address their specific needs as an individual.

There are a lot of different treatment options available, and many of them may be much less expensive and accessible than you might have otherwise assumed. Though it is indeed a public tragedy that depression rates in teenagers are higher than they once were, this can be redeemed by the fact that there is also now more help available. By engaging your teen and trying to find the best help available, you can a part of the long-term solution.


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Polaris Teen Center is a residential treatment facility for teens and adolescents suffering from severe mental health disorders. Our highly accredited facility is fully licensed and certified in Trauma Informed Care and is a part of the Behavioral Health Association of Providers (formerly AATA).