How Do Teens Describe Depression?

By David Konow 05/15/17

Researchers examined the language that teens used to describe symptoms of depression. 

A sad teenage girl

One of the biggest hurdles in getting help for teenagers with anxiety and depression is getting them to open up about their struggles in the first place. To get past this communication breakdown, researchers are recommending that parents listen for other terms their teenagers may be using to describe their emotions, because they may not be able to directly describe how they feel, Today reports.

In a recent study, one researcher, Daniela DeFrino, Ph.D, discovered that “teens rarely stated they were depressed, but described bursts of feeling stressed and sad that often came and went.”

For the study, which was conducted by the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Medicine and College of Nursing, researchers interviewed 369 teenagers who were at risk for depression. In the interview, DeFrino noted that teens would say things like, “I always find somehow to go back to stressful mode,” or “I get really mad at people very easily. They don’t understand why I’m upset. Sometimes I don’t either.”

As DeFrino told PsychCentral, “Much of what a teen is feeling and experiencing is easy to attribute to the ups and downs of teen angst. But, sometimes, there is so much more under the surface that can lead to depression.”

It’s not surprising that many teens will beat around the bush about their emotional problems, especially with the stigmas that still surround mental health issues, and the fact that depression can feel overwhelming to millions of young people. Some of the teens surveyed used the term “stressed” to describe their feelings, and some said they also felt “down,” which is obviously a clearer indication that they’re depressed.

DeFrino also recommended that physicians look deeper into the lives of teenagers who are suffering from stress-related illnesses like ulcers, migraines and stomach pain, because these illnesses can speak just as loudly about their emotional state than words can. (Two thirds of the teens surveyed for this report had suffered similar physical ailments.)

“Teens may be experiencing a lot of internal turmoil and difficult life stresses that we can easily overlook if we don’t probe with sensitive questioning and understanding,” DeFrino added. “Reframing these feelings as outward symptoms of pre-depression by the primary care provider would allow for connection to and discussion about the importance of mental health with the teen and parent.”

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In addition to contributing for The Fix, David Konow has also written for Esquire, Deadline, LA Weekly, Village Voice, The Wrap, and many other publications and websites. He is also the author of the three decade history of heavy metal, Bang Your Head (Three Rivers Press), and the horror film history Reel Terror (St Martins Press). Find David on LinkedIn and Facebook.