Uncovering the Roots
“Usually, teenage depression is not due to one factor alone but to a combination of stressors.”—Dr. Kathleen McCoy.
WHAT causes teen depression? A number of factors may be involved. For one thing, the physical and emotional changes brought on by puberty can flood youths with uncertainty and fear, making them especially prone to negative states of mind. Also, teens are often vulnerable to negative emotions when they feel that they have been rejected by their peers or by someone for whom they had developed romantic feelings. Then, too, as noted in our opening article, today’s teens are growing up in a world that can be depressing in itself. We are indeed living in “critical times hard to deal with.”—2 Timothy 3:1.
Compounding the problem, youths are facing the pressures of life for the very first time, and they have neither the skills nor the experience of adults. Hence, teens often become like tourists navigating through unfamiliar territory—overwhelmed by their surroundings and, in many cases, not inclined to ask for help. These conditions can become fertile ground for the seeds of depression.
But there are a number of other factors that can contribute to teen depression. Let us consider just a few.
Depression and Loss
Depression sometimes follows a profound loss—perhaps the death of a loved one or the loss of a parent through divorce. Even the death of a pet can plunge a teen into despair.
There are also less obvious types of loss. For example, moving to a new neighborhood means leaving behind familiar surroundings and beloved friends. Even achieving a much-anticipated goal—such as graduating from school—can trigger feelings of loss. After all, embarking on a new phase of life implies losing the comfort and security of the past. Then there are youths who must endure some type of chronic illness. In such a circumstance, the pain of being different from one’s peers—perhaps even being ignored by them—can make a teen feel as if he or she has lost a degree of normality.
Granted, many youngsters face such losses without becoming entirely overwhelmed. They get sad, they cry, they grieve, they mourn—but in time they adjust. Why is it, though, that while most teens take on the pressures of life with resiliency, others succumb to the throes of depression? There are no easy answers, for depression is a complex disorder. But some teens might be more vulnerable.
The Biochemical Connection
Many mental-health professionals believe that a biochemical imbalance in the brain plays a key role in depression.* The imbalance may be passed on genetically, for researchers have found that teens with a parent who suffers from depression are more likely to develop the condition themselves. “Depressed children more often than not have at least one parent who also suffers from depression,” says the book Lonely, Sad and Angry.
This raises the question, Do children truly inherit depression, or do they simply learn to be depressed from living with an afflicted parent? The ‘nature versus nurture question’ is difficult to answer, for the brain is incredibly complex, as are the many other factors that may contribute to teen depression.
Depression and Family Environment
Depression has been called a family affair, and for good reason. As already noted, there may be a genetic component that passes on a tendency toward depression from one generation to the next. But family environment might also play a part. “Children whose parents abuse them are at great risk for depression,” writes Dr. Mark S. Gold. “So are kids whose parents are overly critical and who focus on their child’s inadequacies.” Depression can also result when parents are smothering and overprotective. Interestingly, however, one researcher found that children are even more prone to depression when parents simply show a lack of interest in them.
This does not mean, however, that all depressed teens are victims of bad parenting. Such a sweeping assertion would ignore the host of other factors that can contribute to the problem. Still, in some cases family environment is a crucial part of the equation. “Children living in homes in which there is persistent tension between the parents are at higher risk for depression than children in less troubled environments,” writes Dr. David G. Fassler. “One reason is that the battling parents get so involved in their disputes that they neglect the needs of their kids. Another is that the parents often make children the focus of their arguments, which can make the youngsters feel guilty, angry, and resentful.”
These are just some of the factors that can contribute to teen depression. There are others. For example, some experts say that environmental factors (such as poor nutrition, toxins, and substance abuse) can induce depression. Others point out that certain medications (such as some antihistamines and tranquilizers) can have a bearing. It seems, too, that children with learning disabilities are especially prone to depression, possibly because their self-esteem tends to wane as they realize that they cannot keep up with their classmates.
Regardless of the cause, however, it is vital to consider the question, How can depressed teens be helped?
Some suspect that while many sufferers are born with the imbalance, others start out healthy but become more susceptible to depression when a traumatic event alters brain chemistry.
[Pictures on page 8, 9]
Family tension is often a catalyst for depression