Researchers from Johns Hopkins University, Columbia University and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration have found a troubling trend in the mental health of adolescents.
According to the new study published in the December 2016 issue of Pediatrics, depression rates among U.S. tweens and teens have increased over the past decade. As well, treatment rates from American primary care providers have not seen a similar rise, meaning there may be an increasing number of young people going untreated.
Using data from the National Surveys on Drug Use and Health, researchers found that among adolescents ages 12-17, depression rates have increased to 11.3 percent in 2014 from 8.7 percent in 2005. The study also showed that girls are more at risk for depression, with rates among adolescent girls rising to 17.3 percent in 2014 from 13.1 percent in 2004, compared to rates for adolescent boys, which rose to 5.7 percent from 4.5 percent during the same time period. As of yet, there are no comparable studies using Canadian data.
Researchers aren’t sure of the causes for the rise in depression rates, but suggest girls may be encountering a greater degree of depression risk factors such as cyberbullying and the use of mobile devices and texting applications.
“Depression is a sizeable and growing deadly threat to our U.S. adolescent population,” said Anne Glowinski, a professor at the Washington University School of Medicine, in a commentary published alongside the study. “The prioritization of youth depression treatment of our U.S. population health is imperative.”
What parents can do to help
Parents of younger children should start looking out for signs of depression as kids approach their double-digit years, especially once they begin using social media regularly. As Ramin Mojtabai, a professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and the study’s lead author, says, “although younger children can also experience depressive symptoms and depressive episodes, the risk increases in early teens.”
The onset of puberty as well as external pressures from schoolwork and peers, are contributing factors, but social media also plays a large role, Mojtabai says. “The use of social media and the potential problems associated with its misuse are more of a concern in adolescents.”
While no evidence-based preventive protocols have been established for children and adolescents, Mojtabai stresses that it’s important for parents to provide a supportive home environment, to talk to children about their daily life stresses and to be alert to the possible symptoms of depression. These things are always helpful, he says, but prevention initiatives mainly focus on early detection and treatment.
“The best thing parents can do is to be sure they’re keeping lines of communication with their kids open,” says Daphne Korczak, a child psychiatrist at SickKids who also sits on a mental health committee with the Canadian Paediatric Society. “Parents should ensure their child isn’t consumed with school work and that there is still time in their schedule for fun.”
While mood swings are normal for children and adolescents, depressive symptoms that last a couple of weeks or longer call for professional help.
“Parents should be alert to changes in academic or social functioning,” says Mojtabai. This includes looking out for symptoms such as social withdrawal, long periods of sadness, frequent crying spells, anger outbursts and irritability, suicidal ideations or gestures, significant changes in appetite and weight and significant changes in energy level.
The study encourages parents to talk to their paediatrician about possible treatments for older kids showing symptoms of depression. Possible treatments may include antidepressant medication and psychological treatments. Mojtabai also suggested some children may benefit from family therapy sessions with parents.
“The main thing for parents,” says Korczak, “is to be present and notice changes in your children.”