Not in the mood – when your teen may be suffering from a mental disorder

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Depression is the fourth leading cause of illness and disability among adolescents aged 15-19 years, says WHO.
Depression is the fourth leading cause of illness and disability among adolescents aged 15-19 years, says WHO.

Mental health has been in the spotlight more than ever since the pandemic overtook the world last year.

It’s a conversation that’s long overdue – as our emotional wellbeing has always been pushed into the shadows and research and funding has focused on the biggies like cancer and HIV. And now Covid-19.

But the trauma associated with protective measures against the virus like isolation and social distancing has refocused health discussions and made mental health an area of concern, particularly when it comes to the youth.

Research suggests around one in eight young people between the ages of five and 19 are at risk of developing a mental disorder, of which mood and anxiety disorders are the most prevalent, says brand academic manager at ADvTECH, Dr Jacques Mostert.

“The prevalence of mood difficulties among young people is increasingly becoming a concern internationally,” he says.

Dr Mostert, who holds a PhD in psychology of education and has conducted research in education around the world, estimates 24% of teens between the ages of 11 to 19 suffer from depression caused by the home environment, 25% are subject to cyber-bullying and loneliness, 92% of LGBT youth report depression during the ages of 11 to 19, and 80% of teens between the ages of 11 to 19 report a sense of isolation that causes them to feel depressed.

Read more | Mental illness is booming – and you have a role to play

Recognising the signs

“It is very important to understand the signs of depression, so that action can be taken timeously should concerns about the mental wellbeing of a child arise,” Dr Mostert says.

“Teachers and parents can recognise the onset of depression when a sudden change in behaviour becomes apparent and continues for at least three weeks or longer. These include an atypical lack of energy, becoming increasingly irritable and agitated without a rational explanation, and a sense of being down in the dumps for no reason.”

Some adolescents may withdraw from friends and family over a sustained period of time, he adds.

“And another red flag is the inability to concentrate in class where ADHD or other non-neurotypical difficulties are not present, as well as regularly failing to complete classroom and homework assignments in time or often being late to class because of feeling overwhelmed.

“This, coupled with unusually defiant behaviour towards teachers and other school staff, especially if this is non-typical behaviour, may indicate that the teen is experiencing difficulties with mood and affect.”

The student often asks to go home because of feeling ill with no discernible symptoms. They often have days off from class time due to doctor’s appointments, hospitalisation, or inability to attend classes.

Parents should also look out for changes in sleep patterns, a significant weight loss or gain in a short period of time, and disinterest in hobbies or areas where the teen previously showed interest.

Finally, a loss of future-mindedness, or talk about death or suicide, engaging in risky or self-destructive behaviour (like drinking alcohol, taking drugs, or cutting) are clear signs of suffering from mood difficulties or a possible mood disorder.

“Not all of the above need to be present, but if there is a drastic change in a young person’s behaviour that continues for a period of several weeks or longer, intervention is necessary,” Dr Mostert says.

Read more | Kids feeling anxious about school? Here’s how you can help

4 ways to help

1  Develop collaborate relationships. Parents of teenagers should listen with empathy and not give in to the easier way out of lecturing. They should be gentle but persistent.

2  Avoid negativity. Punishment, sarcasm, disparagement, and passive-aggression affirm a depressed teenager’s belief of not being worthy or a valued member of the family or society. Parents must be willing to be vulnerable and acknowledge their own and their teenager’s feelings.

3  Don’t lower expectations or give unearned rewards. Realistic and earned rewards are important tools in a parent’s approach to supporting their depressed child. The sense of having earned a reward and receiving acknowledgement for something affirms their sense of value. But the opposite is also true – unearned praise leaves the teenager with a feeling of inauthenticity and affirms their already negative self-perception.

4  Plan for success. Depressed teens often drop activities they used to enjoy and parents are often tempted to try to get them interested again. However, Dr Mostert says this may make things worse and parents should rather try to find new, interesting activities that may make them feel successful. For example, get them to assist with a DIY task or tech issue in which they can easily measure a successful result. Then, when they do succeed, they will feel they have truly earned the praise.

“Most importantly, parents should trust their gut,” Dr Mostert says.

“If your teenager insists that nothing is wrong, despite a prolonged period of depressed mood or being diagnosed with major depressive disorder or bipolar disorder, parents should trust their instincts and seek help from their medical practitioner or a psychiatrist.”

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