“I just want to wake up in the morning and not feel sad.” Nicholas Westers, a child psychologist who specializes in depression and anxiety, explains the difference between sadness and depression and talks us through how we can support our teens’ mental health challenges.
Q: What is the difference between sadness and depression?
Westers: Sadness is typically temporary and there is an identifiable trigger. Sadness is a very normal human emotion that all of us feel, and although it can be uncomfortable, it doesn’t cause significant distress in day-to-day function. Depression causes significant impairment in day-to-day lives and does not always have an identifiable trigger. It can come out of a combination of a genetic tendency that runs through the family and a significant stressor. It shows itself in other symptoms that co-occur at the same time that are constant for at least two weeks at a time, such as difficulty sleeping, irritability, suicidal thoughts, lost appetite, lower energy levels, and many more.
Q: How can I tell if my teen is sad or depressed?
Westers: Reading teens can be difficult, and signs of depression show differently for every kid. For example, if your teen just got dumped and won’t get out of bed and is deeply sad, how can you tell if it’s something that will pass, or is potentially serious?
It depends on your teen’s normal behavior. Think about how long it normally takes for them to bounce back from things and observe how long it seems to be taking them this occurrence. If it is much longer than normal, and their behaviors and speech are different as well, it might be something to inquire about.
The answer isn’t always to ship them off to therapy immediately. Therapy is only useful for teens if they want to go and get help. Teens take cues from adults. If they are asked about their emotions, then they will feel it is safe to discuss. Don’t dismiss their sadness and emotions. Ask them why or when they started feeling that way. It’s okay to ask them about depression and suicidal thoughts. That opens the door for them to feel safe about it and decreases the chance about it happening. When you ask, you can use phrasing along the lines of: “I’ve heard that a lot of teenagers may struggle with thoughts of suicide. Do you know if any of your friend have felt that way. Have you ever felt that way?”
When they answer, listen to them and don’t immediately jump in with questions about why they feel that way. They will feel like you’re passing judgment and immediately close the door you’ve opened. Instead, respond with support: “I’m sorry you feel that way. How can I support you? Can I check in with you every once in a while? Have you ever talked with someone or considered talking to someone?”
Teens that have more than one cycle of depression and recovery are more likely to need constant medication management and therapy for it.