Depression and depression-like symptoms have become increasingly prevalent in students of all ages, with a particular emphasis on teenagers and college students. With the influx of hormones, it can sometimes be challenging to differentiate between normal mood swings and true, diagnosable depression. Although cases range drastically in terms of severity, the rise in suicidal ideation and attempts have risen dramatically over the last decade. Learning how to tell the difference and understanding when and how to step in is crucial for being able to aid your child or young adult in need.
What Is Depression?
By definition, depression is a mental illness that negatively impacts the way a person thinks, feels, and acts. From a neurological standpoint, depression is a lack of sufficient dopamine, which is a chemical responsible for positive mood amongst other vital processes. Depression has the ability to cause a lack of motivation, unwillingness to continue living, withdrawal and reclusive behavior, weight loss, sleeping issues, and constant fatigue. Unsurprisingly, suffering from this mental illness can have an extreme impact on those experiencing these symptoms. Especially for children and teens, the implications can cause irreparable damage if left unattended.
Signs To Look Out For
There are a multitude of signs to be on the lookout for when attempting to recognize depression in your student. First and foremost, any significant behavior changes need to be examined. This can range from altered eating or sleep habits, a significant change in weight, a loss of interest in socializing, a lack of motivation for things they once enjoyed, a drop in grades, and drastic mood swings. Again, mood swings are typical for students experiencing puberty or becoming young adults, but it is essential to use your best judgment when examining this shift in their behavior.
Another common sign that your child is suffering from depression is relentless fatigue. Especially in younger children that are more commonly high energy, a shift from excitable to uninterested in any fun is a huge red flag. The way that they talk about themselves is important to be aware of as well. A student that often expresses frustration that they are not good enough, unintelligent, unworthy, or that no one likes them is exhibiting signs of depression. Although it could be misconstrued as poor self-esteem, this is one of the more common ways young students communicate depression-like feelings.
Self-harm is another serious sign of depression and is typically seen in students of middle school and beyond, though it is not impossible for students younger than this to begin harming themselves. Some of the ways in which they may hurt themselves are by cutting, drug use, binge eating, starvation or bulimia, excessively exercising, burning themselves, or pinching to draw blood. All of these methods of self-harm are detrimental to both the body and the psyche, but some are incredibly dangerous for their developing bodies. For example, bulimia and anorexia can severely stunt growth, put excessive strain on the heart, cause kidney and liver damage, and cause significant hair loss. Therefore, any signs of self-harm need to be immediately addressed with action taken.
Any discussion of suicide, even in a casual or potentially joking way, needs to be taken seriously as well. Particularly in young students, this could be something they heard another peer say at school and are repeating, or it could be a genuine thought in their mind. There is no way to know unless these comments are taken seriously. Any time your child brings up the topic of death, it is crucial to explore the conversation. Approaching this topic with students that are showing signs of withdrawing is another important choice to make.
Anxiety is very closely linked to depression, and because of this, it is wise to look out for signs of this in your student as well. Panic attacks, constant stress or worry, and a fear of leaving a parent’s side are some of the ways children demonstrate their anxiety. It is common for students of younger ages to experience a stage of separation anxiety, but anything lasting for an extended period of time is cause for concern. Anxiety and depression are two of the most common and detrimental mental health issues affecting students, and the above signs are the best way to recognize them properly. Left unattended, these can manifest into much larger issues.
How Can This Affect Them Long-Term?
One of the concerning effects of long-term depression is decreased gray matter in the brain. This can lead to problems with motor function, decreased ability to store memories, and emotional processing issues. Another common issue is lowered immune abilities, which makes those suffering from chronic depression more susceptible to illnesses. The cause of this is typically insufficient nutrition due to a lack of appetite.
Students suffering from long-term depression may also end up isolated as they continue to avoid social interaction. Loss of friendships is not uncommon, especially when the period of reclusive behavior extends for months to years.
Finally, students may lose their opportunities to advance in school or secure a career if they continue to be withdrawn from school work. College students may end up dropping out, while younger students may be unsuccessful in passing classes required for graduation. This extended lack of motivation has the ability to bleed into nearly every aspect of their lives, which is why it is so crucial to intervene as quickly as possible.
How To Start A Conversation
One of the most challenging yet most important aspects of addressing depression in your student is opening the door for conversation. Depression can make students feel isolated, alone, and hopeless. Reminding them that they have a support system that loves and cares for them is vital, especially when suicidal ideation is occurring.
Similarly, discussing options with your student is a great way to instill hope back in their minds. Suggesting some next steps that can provide them with relief and professional support is a great place to start your conversation.
Another impactful element of your conversation could be sharing personal experiences that may further show your student that they are not alone. Throughout life, most people have some experience with depression-like symptoms. It does not need to be diagnosed by a professional in order to be relatable to your student. For example, explaining a time when you felt depressed and sharing the steps that got you through it could have a massive impact. Relatability and shared experiences are powerful ways to communicate hope and community.
Next Best Steps
Having an action plan is important once you have confirmed that your student is, in fact, experiencing depression. First, research local providers that can support them professionally. This could be a therapist, counselor, psychiatrist, or even an inpatient facility, depending on the severity of the depression.
Next, consult your child’s doctor on whether or not medication could be a consideration. This is an incredibly personal decision and will require medical advice to decide if this is the correct route.
Finally, continue supporting your student in ways that can boost their mood and naturally combat the depression symptoms. Some examples of this are family walks to promote movement, getting outside in the sun to get vitamin D, spending quality time together, and eating nutrient-dense foods to promote gut health.
Though this time can be incredibly challenging, it is essential to remember that depression can be expected in students and that there are many ways to support them and provide the care they need to cope with this mental illness. Being aware of the warning signs, knowing what options exist, and having a conversation with your student can get you both through it.
New Dimensions Can Help!
If you or someone you know is struggling with depression, anxiety, or other mental health issues, New Dimensions can help. We provide Partial Hospitalization (PHP) and Intensive Outpatient Programs (IOP) for adolescents and adults with mental health and/or substance abuse issues. To learn more about our in-person treatment programs in Katy, The Woodlands, and Houston contact us at 800-685-9796. You can also learn more about our online treatment programs by visiting our website at www.nddtreatment.com.
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