Major Depressive Disorder in Teens

Major Depressive Disorder (Depression) is a serious mental health disorder characterized by a pervasive low mood that impairs virtually all aspects of a person’s life including family, home life, school/work, peer relationships, etc.  Depression is not the same as “the blues” or normal situational sadness. It is a long lasting state of uninterrupted despair and hopelessness that constitutes a real medical illness. In extreme cases depression can lead to suicide.

At Adolescent Growth we specialize in the treatment of depression in teens.  While they are the same illness, adolescent depression and adult depression often manifest themselves in different ways.  Teens are more likely to “act out” and appear frustrated, angry, irritated or upset. An adolescent that is depressed is in a great deal of pain and needs assistance from those that love them.

Causes of Depression

There is no one single cause of depression.  It appears that depression is most often caused by a combination of three factors.  These factors play a significant role in causing and exacerbating adolescent depression.

1. External Life Stressors

There are many stressors in the life of an adolescent. School, parents, peers, self and sometimes work can create so much pressure that the adolescent feels paralyzed, trapped or out of control.  This can quickly lead to sadness and despair, which in turn morphs into depression.

  • Choosing a future occupation
  • Betrayal/peer conflict
  • Meeting the expectations of parents/family members
  • Acceptance and fitting in
  • Romantic relationships
  • Academic pressure
  • Physical changes in the body
  • Drugs/peer pressure

Any one of these stressors can be difficult to cope with.  Sadly, teens usually have to deal with the majority of, if not all of the issues listed above.  Adding in conjunction with these a major life stressor, even the most resilient teenager can become depressed:

  • Divorce of parents
  • Death of a loved one
  • Serious financial problems
  • Trauma such as rape, assault, etc.
  • Bullying/severe peer rejection

2. Internal Dialogue

With so many life stressors to cope with, a teen’s internal dialogue can turn against them very quickly.  Depressed teenagers are caught in a vicious cycle of self-blame and negative self-talk. They see their problems lasting forever with no hope of change.  This internal dialogue almost certainly consists of a large number cognitive distortions or inaccurate thoughts that act like filters to view and interpret the world.  Since these filters are distorted, the assessments made may not be accurate.

3. Neurotransmitters in the Brain

Depression and mood disorders, in general, have a chemical element as well as a psychosocial one. Antidepressant medications (discussed below) have been found to be successful in alleviating depression in some people because of their effects on certain neurotransmitters in the brain.  Serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine are the most common neurotransmitters identified in mood disturbances.

Symptoms of Depression in Adolescents

There are several symptoms that are characteristic of depressed teenagers. While the list below is not exhaustive, it does provide a depiction of the symptoms an adolescent suffering from a depressive disorder may display:

  • Sadness
  • Marked hopelessness
  • Helplessness
  • Eating impairments
  • Sleeping impairments
  • Limited motivation
  • Feelings of worthlessness
  • Irritability
  • Anhedonia (Formerly pleasurable activities are no longer seen as pleasurable)
  • Poor hygiene
  • Excessive fatigue
  • Poor concentration
  • Suicide attempts
  • Body aches and somatic complaints
  • Feelings of guilt, anger or frustration
  • Agitation
  • Suicidal thoughts/attempts
  • Memory impairments
  • Isolation/withdrawal from others
  • Acting out
  • Academic decline
  • Experimentation with drugs

For the depressed adolescent, life can feel unbearable. Even the simplest task can be a massive struggle such as getting up and getting ready for school.  Well-meaning attempts to help the teen feel better can often be interpreted as invalidating and only serve to make things worse. Our staff are highly trained and experienced in helping depressed teens begin their journey of recovery.  We provide support and empathy as well as tools and education that will equip the depressed teenager to effectively cope with their condition.

Medications Typically Used for Depression in Teens

Not every teen who is depressed needs to be treated with medications.  However, in some teens medication can be very beneficial. Medication is an important component when addressing treatment options.

Contrary to some treatment philosophies, we do not recommend medicating every child who enters treatment.  It is common in other facilities to prescribe medications immediately upon admission. We prefer to perform a thorough assessment of the client’s behaviors, learn what has and has not worked in the past and discuss medication history prior to making recommendations or starting medication.

A key issue when discussing medications is side effects. Many medications affect teens differently than adults.  Psychiatrists at Adolescent Growth take time with each client and their family to amass sufficient information about side effects.

Depression is a serious condition that affects millions of teenagers in the United States each year.  Unfortunately, only a small portion of teenagers get proper treatment for their depression. Without proper treatment teens often resort to unhealthy coping behaviors such as drinking, drugs, self-harm, etc. But there is hope and proper treatment is key.

The highly trained professionals at Adolescent Growth are experts in the field of treating adolescents with depression.  Each individualized treatment plan identifies triggers, problematic behaviors, strengths, weaknesses and potential coping skills that can be utilized when triggers arise. These coping skills are then practiced while in treatment and we work to help our clients transfer those effective skills to their home environments.

Finally, our treatment plans are unique in that they incorporate the entire family.  Parents are encouraged to participate in their adolescent’s treatment as Adolescent Growth believes that teen depression is a family problem, not just an individual one.  We are proud to be the first adolescent treatment program to involve the entire family in our teens’ treatments.

If an Adolescent Has Suicidal Thoughts

Sadly, suicidal thoughts and behaviors are common with some mental illnesses.  If you think your adolescent is at risk of hurting themselves or attempting suicide get help right away:

  1. Call 911 or your local emergency number immediately.
  2. Call a suicide hotline number.
    1. In the United States, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (800-273-8255) to reach a trained counselor.

Treating Teen Depression at Adolescent Growth

Talk Therapy

Almost all adolescents with depression benefit from some form of talk therapy. Talk therapy is beneficial because it allows the teen a safe space to discuss their feelings, their concerns and the root cause of their depression.  Other issues that come up in talk therapy are the adolescent’s internal dialogue, support systems, changes, rejection and perceived power to impact their environment. Talk therapy also helps the adolescent gain skills for coping with life stressors.  Types of talk therapy include:

  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a research based therapy that has been found to be most beneficial in treating depression. CBT focuses on identifying and challenging maladaptive thoughts and behaviors and replacing them with healthy and effective ones. Teenagers are taught to problem solve by addressing negative thoughts and resisting urges to engage in counterproductive behaviors.
  • Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) is a type of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy that focuses on four main modules: Mindfulness, Emotion Regulation, Distress Tolerance and Interpersonal Effectiveness. DBT has been shown to be very effective in treating clients presenting with varied symptoms and behaviors associated with spectrum mood disorders, including depression.
  • Psychotherapy examines the underlying origins of depression so that the root cause can be discovered and addressed. Clients are invited to explore past experiences that generated negative or unpleasant responses.  These negative responses are then repeatedly played out in other similar circumstances as the adolescent ages. Becoming aware of the root cause of problematic responses empowers the teen and provides an opportunity to see and understand the driving forces behind their depression.


Many people have had tremendous success in using medication to treat depression. Our psychiatrists at Adolescent Growth specialize in using medication to treat teenagers with as few side effects as possible. Furthermore, adolescents and their families are educated about medications, their proper usage and basic functions. Our licensed nurses are there for the clients when they have questions or concerns.  The nurses ensure that the clients are cognizant of the medications they are taking, the purpose of the medications as well as potential side effects.

Family Therapy

Family therapy is a central component of our mental health program. Adolescent Growth works closely with the family throughout their teen’s entire treatment, integrating the client’s native support system into the therapy process.  We hold that the family is an integral part of a teen’s support system. With this in mind, we offer family therapy, parent support groups and our groundbreaking Multi Family Restoration Workshops which take place over the course of a full day on the weekend.

Support Groups

Adolescents that suffer from depression need as much support as they can get if they are going to stay away from the negative influences that led to their depression in the first place. With this in mind, we offer a free support group, known as the Alumni Group.  Alumni groups are used to keep clients surrounded by positive influences from their peers as well as our treatment team.

Let Adolescent Growth Help Your Teen Overcome Depression

Despite the hopelessness and despair that accompanies adolescent depression, there is hope.  Depression is a treatable illness and with the proper intensive treatment there is a strong likelihood that the adolescent’s mood will begin to improve.  Proper treatment not only addresses the client’s current mood but also prepares them for coping effectively with future mood disturbances. Clients are taught to tolerate emotional discomfort using distress tolerance and emotion regulation skills in a socially appropriate fashion.

For more information on the services we offer, please call for a free consultation.  We are available 24 hours a day. Our kind and compassionate admissions department is here to help you during this difficult time.