What is depression? How common is it?
Depression is a common mental health condition that causes symptoms affecting how you feel, think, and manage daily activities, such as sleeping, eating, studying, or working. Most of us know what it is like to go through intermittent and temporary periods of feeling down or blue, particularly if we’re dealing with difficult life circumstances such as a break up or the stress of final exams or challenges with friends or family members. We often hear people describing themselves during these periods as “depressed”. But, in reality, symptoms of depression are persistent, sticking around for at least two weeks without ever really letting up and sometimes without a clear explanation.
Also known as “major depression” or “clinical depression”, depression is very common among teens and young adults. In fact, 17%, or roughly 1 in 6, young people between the ages of 12 to 17 struggled with depression in 2020. This remains steady into young adulthood: 17% of 18-25 year olds also experience depression – the highest prevalence among adult age groups. While “depression” is the name of what can be a lifelong mental health condition that ebbs and flows, sometimes you might hear a doctor refer to a “depressive episode”. A depressive episode refers to a specific period of time when symptoms worsen for any number of reasons. By the age of 18, 1 in 4 teenagers will experience an “episode” of depression.
*Note: In some cases, depression can cause a person to have thoughts about death, dying or suicide. If you or someone you know is in crisis, please text or call 988. Every life matters 💛. Our website is not a resource for life-threatening situations and is not monitored 24/7
“You say you're 'depressed' - all I see is resilience. You are allowed to feel messed up and inside out. It doesn't mean you're defective - it just means you're human.”
- David Mitchell
Signs & symptoms of depression in teens and young adults
While anyone of any age can experience depression, the signs and symptoms of depression in teens and young adults can be different from symptoms of depression in adults. Typical signs of depression can include feeling sad, irritable or angry, nervous, empty, hopeless, helpless, worthless, or flat-out exhausted – not just once in a while but for most of the day, persistently for at least two weeks.
For some young people, depression can lead to changes in typical attitude or behavior. It can cause challenges or changes at home, at school or work, or in social activities. For example, let’s say that you play on your school’s basketball team. If you’re experiencing depression, it’s possible you may feel less interested in playing basketball – even though it's usually your favorite sport.
While it can be difficult to distinguish between the typical ups and downs that come with everyday life, there are few specific symptoms and signs of depression in young people.
Symptoms of depression in teens and young people
Feelings of sadness that linger and can include crying spells for no apparent reason
Feelings of frustration, anger, or irritability, even over small matters that may seem like an overreaction
Feelings of hopelessness, emptiness, or worthlessness
Loss of interest or pleasure in hobbies or social activities
Loss of interest in or troubled relationships with family and friends
Low self-esteem, sometimes in the form of feelings of incompetence or not being good enough, high sensitivity to feeling rejected, self-blame, or self-criticism
Trouble thinking, concentrating, focusing, remembering things, and/or making decisions
Thoughts about death, dying, or suicide
*If you or someone you know is in crisis, please text or call 988. Every life matters 💛 Our website is not a resource for life-threatening situations and is not monitored 24/7
Symptoms are things we feel or experience ourselves, but they may not always be easy for others to see or understand. Signs, on the other hand, are outward signals that can be recognizable to others and may help indicate that something is going on with our mental health. The typical signs of depression in teens and young adults can include the following signs.
Signs of depression in teens and young people
Tiredness or loss of energy
Insomnia or sleeping too much
Changes in eating and appetite, either eating too little leading to weight loss or experiencing increased cravings for food and weight gain
New or increased use of alcohol or drugs
Restlessness, such as pacing, hand-wringing, or an inability to sit still
Withdrawing from friends, family, or social activities
Difficulty managing school, including lower grades or frequent absences
Experiencing pain that won’t go away
Angry outbursts, making risky behaviors, or acting out
Thinking, speaking, or moving slowly
Self-harm, such as cutting or burning
Making a suicide plan or attempt
*If you or someone you know is in crisis, please text or call 988 for immediate support. Every life matters 💛 Our website is not a resource for life-threatening situations and is not monitored 24/7
Causes and risk factors for depression in young people
Like for many mental health conditions, the exact causes of depression continue to be an active area of scientific research. But, we have identified a number of factors that can contribute to the development of depression.
Some known contributors to depression in teens and young adults include:
Teen brain development: Our brains continue to mature until about age 25. In teen and young adult years, the area of the brain responsible for helping us regulate emotions and respond to threats (the prefrontal cortex) matures rapidly as part of the final stage of brain development. Research suggests that this flurry of changes in the prefrontal cortex results in extra vulnerability to developing depression, stress, addiction, and psychosis in teen and young adult years. Also during this time, our body’s stress response system (called the HPA axis, short for hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis) “gets a workout,” describes neuroscientist Dr. Frances Jensen in her book, The Teenage Brain. She explains that the gradual release of extra stress hormones (called cortisol) is a key predictor for depression in teens and young adults.
Hormones: Puberty, or the time during which your body transitions from being a kid to being an adult, causes a change in hormones, or the chemical messengers in your body that tells different organs and cells what to do to keep you going. As part of the puberty process, these changes are normal for every teen – regardless of whether you prefer peanut m&ms or plain ones. But, since your body grows at the fastest rate it ever will during puberty, it can lead to spikes in some hormones, which in turn cause more extreme changes in our body, moods, emotions, and impulses. Sometimes this natural process of dramatic shifts in hormone levels can make us more vulnerable to depression.
Trauma: Sometimes, we experience difficult events when we’re young that can cause changes in the brain that lead to mental health conditions, including depression. This includes things like the loss of a loved one or separation from a parent, neglect, physical, sexual or emotional abuse, an emotionally unavailable parent, an unstable or unsafe environment, a serious childhood illness, bullying, or even worldwide events such as a global pandemic. If you’re having a tough time right now, whatever the reason, visit our find support page for lots of resources to help you cope.
Patterns of negative thinking: Most of us can relate to being a little bit too hard on ourselves when circumstances don’t go as planned. Thinking, for example, “Ugh, I should have…” or “this is all my fault” are common examples of negative thinking. But, if we think this way all the time, it can become a repeated pattern of how we respond to various situations, such as family troubles or a bad grade on a test or missing a pass in a soccer game. When this happens, creating cycles of self-criticism (known as “cognitive distortions”), it can alter how we think about and view and value ourselves, contributing to depression.
There are also a few risk factors that may increase an individual’s likelihood to experience depression. But remember, just because you may have any one of these risk factors, does not mean that you will experience depression.
Risk factors for depression in teens and young adults
Having a family member who lives with depression or other mental illness, including substance use disorder
Experiencing challenges that negatively impact self-esteem, including obesity, problems with peers, bullying, or learning differences
Experiencing chronic pain, whether as a reaction to stress or due to another illness
Alcohol or drug use or withdrawal
Gender, as depression is more common in females
Environment and external stressors such as poverty or discrimination
Certain medications, including some types of hormonal birth control
Looking for ways to lower your risk of developing depression? We have plenty of suggestions for how you can take steps to take care of yourself and your mind and reduce your likelihood of experiencing depression.
Depression screening and diagnosis for teens and young adults
If you or someone you know has been experiencing signs or symptoms for depression for more than 2 weeks, it is probably a good time to seek professional support. If it has been less than 2 weeks but symptoms are already interfering with day-to-day life, it is still worthwhile to seek support, whether by talking to a trusted ally, reaching out for peer support, or finding a health professional. You can find support options for a variety of needs on our Resources We Love page. Or, visit Mental Health America to take a free mental health screening online.
To receive a diagnosis for depression and begin treatment, you can reach out to your primary care doctor or mental health provider (psychologist or psychiatrist). The screening process for depression involves a series of questions focused on your moods, behaviors, and thoughts. A diagnosis of depression requires that an individual experience at least 1 depressive episode with symptoms lasting at least 2 weeks.
It’s important to remember that whether or not you receive a diagnosis of depression, your feelings and experiences are valid and important. Our mental health is a spectrum, and it changes all the time. If you think you would benefit from additional support, whether by practicing self-care strategies, chatting with a peer who gets it, or exploring professional support options. Visit our Find support page to learn more about the various resources available to you.
If you receive a diagnosis of depression, and you’re worried about what it means, just remember what a diagnosis is – at the end of the day, a diagnosis is just a label that health professionals use to describe a particular cluster of symptoms and experiences. It does not mean anything about you other than to say that you are having these particular experiences. As part of the diagnosis process, it's possible you may hear a few different terms being thrown around. Here are a few terms you might hear.
A few terms you may hear while being screened for depression
Mood disorder: Depression is considered a type of a mood disorder, or a mental health condition that affects a person’s emotions and moods and impacts their ability to participate in daily activities
Major depression, major depressive disorder, or clinical depression: These are all just other ways that health professionals refer to “depression”
Persistent depressive disorder: When depression persists, with symptoms lasting at least 2 years, health professional typically call this “persistent depressive disorder”
Bipolar disorder or mania: Sometimes, episodes of depression occur in between episodes of mania. Mania describes overactivity or extremely elevated energy that is noticeable to others. Mania often impacts sleep, and sometimes causes someone to have difficulty perceiving the world around them (psychosis). The combination of both depressive and manic episodes that occur in cycles is called bipolar disorder.
At the end of the day, no matter what your diagnosis is, try not to dwell on it – it really is just a label.
Treatment and recovery from depression
First of all, let’s acknowledge that with treatment, recovery from depression is very much possible. But it does require reaching out for support. Check out our blog for tips for talking to your trusted ally.
If you’ve been diagnosed with depression and you’re exploring treatment options, it’s important to remember that treatment for depression, and the road to recovery, looks a little bit different for each person. There is no single or miracle cure for depression, just as there is no single cause for it. But there are a few things to keep in mind when assessing your options.
Research shows that combining psychotherapy with medication as part of your treatment plan has the greatest effect on improving both the severity of your symptoms and your ability to manage day-to-day activities. (This does not mean that this approach to treatment is right for you. It’s just good to know!)
Lifestyle changes can make a huge impact on how you’re feeling. Taking steps to alleviate stress, practicing self-care, reaching out to your support network, and ensuring your daily routine allows for healthy habits can go a long way to helping you feel better.
For some, depression can be a lifelong illness. Developing and maintaining a treatment plan, including regular check-ins with your health care professional and maintaining a healthy lifestyle, can help manage the ebbs and flows of a chronic illness.
Recovering from depression, just like with any other illness, can feel a little bit like a game of Frogger. It might be filled with steps backwards, sideways, diagonal, circular, and sometimes it might even feel like you’re underwater. And that’s okay! It’s even possible that you’ll discover new things about yourself and tap into new strengths along the way.