Doctors' NotesLifestyle

Doctors’ Notes: Teenage Depression

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Welcome to Doctors’ Notes, our newest contribution from Urban Health correspondents and husband and wife physicians Dr. Rob and Dr. Karla Robinson.  The dynamic duo will be fielding questions about health, as it relates to African Americans.  Please feel free to send them questions via our contact us form.  We promise to keep it anonymous. 


Question:  I recently got a job transfer and had to move my family to a new city about nine months ago.  Ever since then, I have noticed some changes in my 16-year-old son.  He is spending all of his time in his room and doesn’t seem to want to talk to the family anymore.  Is this just him being a “typical teenager” or should I be concerned about depression?

Dr. Karla says:

Given the recent tragedies that we have seen in our community by way of the Navy Yard shooting involving a man with mental illness, and a woman shot to death near the U.S. Capitol building who was reportedly suffering from postpartum depression, a lot of attention has been raised about the often taboo issue of mental health in our community.  Many don’t realize that this is not only a major health concern for adults, but our teens and adolescents are also experiencing a rise in the rates of depression.  It is estimated that up to 30 percent of teenagers meet the criteria for major depression, although many go undiagnosed and untreated.

Diagnosing depression in teens is often complicated by the fact that subtle signs of depression may go unnoticed, so the fact that you actually noticed the changes in your son’s behavior over the last month months is to be applauded.  The onset of teenage depression is often overlooked by parents, because what might be considered the “typical” symptoms of crying spells, fatigue, and appetite changes may not be present at all.  Add to that the fact that teenagers often do experience emotional changes as they make that transition from childhood to adulthood, and it can be difficult to know what is “normal.”  It’s important to know that it is never normal for a teen to have long lasting emotional or psychological changes.  If your teen is persistently withdrawn, it is definitely a good idea to seek the help of a professional.

Dr. Rob says:

Untreated depression is a major health and social issue for our adolescents as this can often lead to self-destructive behaviors such as substance abuse, self-mutilation, risky sexual practices, poor school performance, and even violence such as suicide or homicide.  In fact, the third leading cause of death in our young black men ages 15-24 is suicide.

It’s important to know the signs and symptoms of depression in teenagers and recognize when it is time to seek help.  So we have compiled a list of the most common signs you might have a depressed teen.

Top 10 Signs Your Teen May Be Depressed

1.       Withdrawal

If your teen is spending more time alone and avoiding social activities, it may be cause for concern.  It is also common for depressed teens to start withdrawing from established friendships and start hanging with a different crowd.

2.       Unexplained Scars

Never ignore unexplained scars on the hands, feet, arms, or legs.  Teens often resort to “cutting” or self-mutilation in an effort to express their pain.

3.       Excessive Sleep

Yes, teens sleep a lot.  However, excessive sleeping can be a sure sign of depression or a teen self-medicating to treat depression.  Teens may resort to substance abuse in an effort to numb the pain, or “sleep the pain away.”  Never ignore excessive sleepiness in a teen, assuming it is “normal.”

4.       Unusual Behavior at School

Failing grades, a lack of participation, or disruptive behavior can all be signs of depression in teens.  Communication with teachers, counselors, and other care-givers when you notice behavior changes in your teen is essential.

5.       Increased Irritability

Bursts of anger and mood swings filled with rage are not normal teen behavior.  It may be a manifestation of depression.  Talk to your teen about seeking help if you notice extreme frustration, anger, or violent tendencies.

6.       Drug and Alcohol Abuse

Depressed teens are more likely to turn to mind altering substances like drugs and alcohol in an effort to avoid the pain of depression.  Never assume your teen is “just experimenting” or that it is “just a phase.”  Seek help immediately if you suspect any substance abuse.

7.       A Sense of Hopelessness and Helplessness

Phrases such as “What’s the point?” or “Nothing matters anyway” or “Nobody cares anyway” or “It would be better if I weren’t here” are all statements alluding to a sense of hopelessness.  These are major signs of a depressed teen.  Additionally, a fascination with death, dying, or suicide including writing poems, stories, or songs about it can be clues to a teen that is struggling.  Never ignore these signs and address them immediately.

8.       Giving Away Belongings

If you notice your teen emptying themselves of prized possessions or belongings seek help right away.  This is often a teen considering suicide.  According to the CDC, suicide is the third leading cause of death in those teens and adolescents aged 15-24.

9.       Unexplained Aches and Pains

Depressed teens will often complain of stomachaches, headaches, or other general aches and pains.  If there is no medical explanation for these symptoms, consider depression as a cause.

10.   Crying Spells

Excessive crying and sadness is not normal in teens.  Don’t mistake depression in your teen for “raging teenage hormones.”  Depressed teens often have a sense of worthlessness, low self-esteem, and are highly self-critical.  This may manifest as crying spells as they may be overly sensitive to criticism or rejection.

If you recognize any of these symptoms, don’t delay and seek help right away.

It’s a health thing…we’ve got to understand!

About the Doctors:

Dr. Karla and Dr. Rob are the founders of Urban Housecall Magazine and host the Urban Housecall Radio Show.  For more from the doctors, visit their website at, like them on Facebook UrbanHousecallMagazine, and follow them on twitter @urbanhousecall!