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Wellesley College, Wellesley Centers for Women

Recognizing signs of depression in teens as we head into a difficult winter

As National Depression and Mental Health Screening Month comes to a close, and health officials warn of a difficult pandemic winter ahead, it's important for parents to know how to identify symptoms of depression in their teenagers -- and what to do about it.

Tracy Gladstone, Ph.D., is a senior research scientist at the Wellesley Centers for Women, as well as the inaugural director of the Robert S. and Grace W. Stone Primary Prevention Initiatives, which aim to research, develop, and evaluate programs to prevent the onset of depression and other mental health concerns in children and adolescents. 

Gladstone and her team have screened hundreds of middle school and high school students for depression, both before and during the COVID-19 outbreak. Though the social isolation of the pandemic has not been universally problematic for adolescents, Gladstone thinks there is reason to believe that rates of depressive symptoms and symptoms of anxiety are higher now than they were before. She is available for interviews on how parents can be vigilant and seek help when they need it. 

Gladstone says:

“The pandemic is having a tremendous impact on adolescents, and different teens are experiencing this time quite differently. In talking with many adolescents and their parents about the effect of the pandemic, I have heard stories about the isolation teens feel now, and about the stress of being separated from peers and school supports. I have also heard stories about how some teens are feeling better now without the stress of routine peer interactions and schedules that are too full with outside activities. It’s too simplistic to say that all teens are suffering from the life changes associated with the pandemic, but I do think that the current circumstances are forcing teens to manage significant changes to their routines, and the overall family and societal stress of this time is challenging for many young people.”

“Parents should expect that their teens may be feeling more depressed or anxious now, both with the pandemic and also due to the fraught political climate. Teens have different ways of exhibiting symptoms of depression and anxiety, but parents should look first for changes in their teens’ behavior that persist for a couple weeks. All teens have quiet days, or times when they seem extra worried about everything, and parents should not be concerned if they see periodic, fleeting changes to mood or behavior. But if your teen is generally warm and outgoing and suddenly seems irritable and withdrawn, and these symptoms persist over a couple weeks, then there is reason to be concerned.” 

“Adolescents are often better than we think at sharing their experiences with symptoms of anxiety and depression when we ask them how they are doing. So often parents just don’t think to ask their teens how they are, and what they are experiencing, and what they need, yet through our work we have found time and again that, when asked, many teens are forthcoming with their feelings and concerns. My best advice for parents: Listen to your gut. If you are worried about your child, or if you worry they are struggling, then reach out to them and express your concern. Approach them when you, and they, have some time, and when you have privacy, and begin a conversation.”




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