Teen depression: Tell-tale signs parents need to look out for and conversations that should be had

Psychiatrist Dr Marshinee Naidoo said that the stigma around mental health can prevent troubled teenagers from seeking support from those closest to them Picture: Pixabay

Psychiatrist Dr Marshinee Naidoo said that the stigma around mental health can prevent troubled teenagers from seeking support from those closest to them Picture: Pixabay

Published Mar 30, 2022


The transition from childhood to adulthood comes with many pressures that may not always be easy for children and young adults to discuss with their parents, family or teachers. Adults may also find it difficult to broach concerns about a teenager’s mental health.

These conversations may take courage to initiate but could make the difference between life and death.

Psychiatrist Dr Marshinee Naidoo, who practises at Netcare Akeso Parktown and Netcare Akeso Alberton, said that the stigma around mental health could prevent troubled teenagers from seeking support from those closest to them.

"Teenagers will not always know how to express what they are going through, especially to authority figures such as parents and teachers. If any person is feeling suicidal, they do not necessarily spell it out or draw attention to their state of mind directly in words. There are, however, some potential warning signs that may come across in the person’s behaviour in some instances," she said.

What depression or trauma looks like in teens

Over 10% of 12 to 17-year-olds go through at least one episode of major depression, defined as a period of at least two weeks where they are depressed to the point where they are unable to function, often with persistent feelings of apathy, sadness or anxiety, and disinterest in activities they usually enjoy. Sleeping significantly more or experiencing insomnia may also be associated with depression.

"There may be noticeable changes in their behaviour, such as acting out or withdrawing. This can be a source of tension between the teen and their parents but should be regarded as a signal that something is not right. It is important to recognise at times like these that understanding and open communication without judgement are needed more than ever," Dr Naidoo said.

Trauma can also take its toll on the mental health and wellbeing of teenagers, which could, in severe cases, lead to suicidal thoughts if not properly addressed.

"Teenagers may be so traumatised by an event that they feel unable to open the subject, or they may worry about how their caregivers will react," Naidoo said.

Signs parents need to look out for:

  • Worrying and fretting constantly
  • Avoiding a particular activity, person, or place
  • Vague or unspecified fear and anxiety
  • Deterioration in school work
  • Social withdrawal or less communicative behaviour
  • Emotional reactions that seem out of character

Naidoo said people who are suicidal do not always signal their intentions.

"If there is any cause for concern, however, it is always better to reach out to the person and try to assist them to find professional mental health support," she said.

Breaking the isolation takes courage and sensitivity

"The loneliness and isolation associated with depression and the effects of trauma can deepen a person’s sense of despair. If you notice any person, and in particular a teenager, who is displaying signs of major depression or trauma, be sensitive to the fact that they may not feel able to pro-actively ask for your support – this does not mean it is not needed," Dr Naidoo said.

"Suicide is reportedly the fourth leading cause of death for teenagers aged 15 to 19 globally and constitutes a serious public health risk. It takes courage to help someone take the first steps towards healing.

"Tragically, too many precious young lives are lost every year to suicide. Greater awareness in society is needed to break down the stigma around mental health issues and ensure families and caregivers are better equipped to recognise and assist suicidal individuals before it is too late," Naidoo said.

In the event of a psychological crisis, the Netcare Akeso crisis helpline is available on 0861 435 787, 24 hours a day, to talk to an experienced counsellor.

The Netcare Akeso mental health facilities provide caring professional support to persons of all ages, on either an inpatient or outpatient basis.

The South African Anxiety and Depression Group or Sadag also offers a wealth of resources in the form of seminars and live chats on such topics.


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health welfare