We are still trying to improve our understanding of the clinical causes for depression. In addition, there are numerous factors associated with the rise of depression in youth, including the increasing use of social media and many social factors such as bullying, pressure from school or work, and struggles with family or relationships.
Acknowledging depression in youth
Depression in youth can look different from depression in adulthood. It can be easy to dismiss feelings of depression in children or teenagers – depression may be misconstrued as moodiness, hormonal changes or exaggeration. It is also easy to undermine the reasons why young people can feel depressed, chalking it up to simply feeling stressed from ordinary situations. Phrases like ‘It’s all in your head,’ or ‘What do you have to be depressed about?’ can have harmful effects. This kind of dismissal can exacerbate the problem.
It is important to acknowledge the variety of potential causes of depression in young people. Children, adolescents and young adults who suffer from depression may feel pressure from school or work, be affected by bullying, struggle with work–life balance, or face conflict within their families, friendships or relationships. Broader determinants of mental ill health among young people may include socioeconomic circumstances, exploring sexual identities and the pressure to conform with peers. While these factors may seem to be universal experiences that are just part of daily life for all, there is no doubting the adverse and real effects they can have.
Technology and social media can also play a role in the rise of depression. Social networks such as Instagram and Facebook often portray a false, overly positive impression of a person’s life. It’s no secret that social media allows us to compare our lives with others – and this can cause feelings of despair and worthlessness. Social media may also have an isolating effect on young people, who can sometimes replace real relationships with online connections.
Addressing depression in youth
Mental health must be embraced as a priority, with a focus on empowering young people to talk about it. By starting the conversation about mental health at a young age, we enable children and young people to have power over their wellbeing. Addressing mental health is important at every age, but especially so at a younger age when people may be more vulnerable to external factors.
There are many tools available to help parents and guardians distinguish what can be typical behaviour in young people versus possible signs of depression. There are also many guidelines that can be used in the school or workplace to help recognise and address depression in young people.
The impact of a supportive environment cannot be underestimated. For families, having open conversations at the dinner table is a useful way of checking in and making sure that the young person feels acknowledged and validated in how they are feeling. When a person with depression feels supported by family and friends, they are more likely to seek and accept help.
While social media can sometimes play a harmful role in the mental health of young people, technology can also have a positive impact. In harnessing digital tools to target depression, it is important to use technology that is accessible to young people; many apps and online services have been designed to support mental health. Rather than allowing social media to play a detrimental role in young people’s mental health, it can be used to initiate meaningful and supportive conversations.
As the pace of our society quickens, it is important to acknowledge the mental wellbeing of our young people and address depression in youth, before it has irreversible impacts that will continue into adult life.
Words to Actions series
This blog post is the fourth of a series accompanying policy briefs based on a report published last year by nine leading patient organisations in mental health across Europe. The final policy brief and blog of the Words to Actions series will focus on specific findings from the report, including integrated mental health services.