Why keeping your teen healthy and happy in mind is not as hard as you might have feared
Dr Hayley van Zwanenberg talks to Liz Connor about how adults can best support young people with mental health problems
Stress, anxiety and depression can be tough enough for anyone to deal with, but couple that with the hormonal changes that teenagers face during puberty, and mental health issues can feel like an overwhelming and unconquerable burden for young people.
For parents, it isn't always easy to differentiate between 'normal' teenage angst and a more serious problem, but research suggests 20% of adolescents experience a mental health problem in any given year, highlighting that this is actually a common issue.
Fear of being mocked or not being taken seriously, or a simple confusion about the changes they're experiencing, can often stop young people from reaching out for help - which is why it's vital parents understand how to best to spot the signs of depression in teens, and what to do if this happens.
Fortunately, depression is treatable and there are plenty of things adults can do to support their children through the process.
Here, Dr Hayley van Zwanenberg, a child and adolescent psychiatrist for Priory Healthcare (priorygroup.com), explains more about the early warning signs of teenage depression, and how parents can help:
Spotting the signs
While occasional mood swings or acting out is part of growing up, depression is something different, explains Dr Zwanenberg. "Look out for a teenager that isolates themselves from friends and family, and a constant low mood and lack of energy that may manifest in struggling to do anything other than the minimum they have to do every day," she says. "Also, be aware of loss of motivation, such as abandoning extra-curricular activities and hobbies, and negative thoughts like: 'I'm a boring person and rubbish at everything'."
Dr Zwanenberg explains that some depressed teens may also show signs of self-harm, changes in appetite (either not hungry or comfort-eating) and poor concentration, leading to a decrease in academic performance. "Thinking, 'I'm rubbish, I deserve to suffer, I cannot take this anymore', or, 'I'm going to let everyone down', is common," she adds. Changes in sleep patterns and feeling guilty about little things, or feeling hopeless, can also be an indicator.
Listen, listen, listen (and don't judge)
If your teen starts talking to you about how they are feeling, make an effort to really listen to them without being overbearing in your concern. "If a parent is worried about a young person, it's best to sit down calmly with them and explain they are worried, as they do not seem themselves," says Dr Zwanenberg. "Parents and carers need to be careful that the young person does not take this as criticism, as depression can often feel like carrying a sieve in your mind: any positive information is washed down the sink, while anything negative is caught and focused on, reinforcing other pessimistic thoughts."
Help in a way that they are comfortable with
Often, the most helpful thing you can do is ask your child what they think might help them feel better. It's also important to contextualise the issue for them too, as they might not understand the feelings for what they really are, or feel like they are going 'mad' because they don't have any background knowledge of depression. "If your teenager is struggling, calmly explain to them they might be depressed, and that the issue is treatable, but that you understand it is a horrible place to be when you are suffering with it," says Dr Zwanenberg. "Advise that it would be worth visiting a doctor to find out if they are unwell with depression, and to get them the right support."
"Reassure them with statistics, such as the fact that one in 10 young people have a diagnosable mental illness at any one time, and depression is very common," she adds. "Explain that if they see a GP, the doctor does not have to share everything with the parent, and that the discussions can be kept confidential."
Remind them you are willing to listen too, and that you will not get upset, be overbearing in your advice or dismiss their feelings.
If a child is displaying signs of self-harm or suicidal thoughts, Dr Zwaneberg stresses that you should urge them to telephone a helpline, such as Samaritans or ChildLine, and to ask them to share their thoughts with you in a manner they feel comfortable with, so that you can help keep them safe.
"They could text them to you, write their thoughts down, or talk to you about them when feeling calm," says Dr Zwanenberg. "Things that parents can do to reduce risk include locking away any potentially harmful substances and asking the young person what websites they are accessing online. You should then talk through whether these resources are really helpful to them or not."
"Ask them how they would like you to support them," she adds. "It might be they just want hugs, they want distraction such as watching a film with you or not to be left alone at night-time. They might find it helpful to have useful mindfulness apps, such as Headspace (headspace.com) or Calm Harm (stem4.org)."
Dr Zwanenberg says the most important thing you can do as a parent is to stay calm. "If you need to discuss what they tell you with another family member or friend for your own support, ensure the young person does not feel their confidence is being broken," she says. "Most importantly, seek professional help for your child. Depression is a very difficult illness that causes risks to the young person, but it is treatable, and the earlier treatment is accessed, the better."
If you're concerned about a teenager, charities like Young Minds (youngminds.org.uk) and Mind (mind.org.uk) can offer support and advice. Samaritans provides confidential support to anyone feeling down and depressed or struggling to cope, and can be contacted 24/7 by phone on 116 123, or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org