How to Spot Depression in Children, Teens and Aging Family Members

Soon, the whole family will be gathered at your house for presents, laughter, and we hope, good cheer. This is a great time of year to be watchful and observe how your loved ones are doing. If anyone is irritable or sad, how do you know whether they are having a bad day or week or dealing with depression? If it is something as serious as depression, what can you do to help? Depression often looks very different in young people and older adults than it does in adults ages 20-60. An awareness of these differences helps ensure that the problem is recognized and treated, before developing into a life threatening condition. Here’s what to look for:

Depression in people who are advanced in years. The difficult changes that many older adults face, such as bereavement, loss of independence, and health problems, can lead to depression, especially in those without a strong support system. However, depression is not a normal part of aging. Depression in the elderly can have similar symptoms to dementia, and be overlooked. Older adults tend to complain more about their physical health rather than the development of mental health issues, so depression often goes unrecognized. Symptoms of depression are a side effect of many commonly prescribed drugs. The elderly are particularly at risk if taking multiple medications. Ask older loved ones directly about how they are feeling.

It can be tempting as we age to use alcohol to deal with physical and emotional pain. Alcohol may help take our minds off an illness or ease the pain of loneliness. People of all ages may drink at night to get to sleep, but drinking can greatly impair the quality of our sleep and health, and poor sleep quality exacerbates depression. Alcohol also makes symptoms of depression and anxiety worse and impairs brain function. Alcohol interacts in negative ways with numerous medications and those taking multiple medications are again particularly at risk. Older adults are more sensitive to alcohol than younger people, because as we age, our bodies become less efficient at metabolizing and processing drugs, including alcohol.

Depression in children, teens, and young adults. Young children and many teens are not as articulate as adults are in expressing their emotions, and they may not even realize that something is out of the ordinary. Kids live in a world controlled by adults and they can easily feel powerless over what is happening to them. Children and teens with depression may resist words of encouragement or advice. Young children with depression may become overly sensitive, have sleep difficulties, quit eating normally, and withdraw into themselves. This can be especially common in a family that is struggling with deep financial stress, divorce, the death of a loved one, or other difficult issues.

While some depressed teens appear sad, others do not. In fact, irritability, rather than sadness is frequently the predominant symptom in depressed adolescents. A depressed teenager may be/feel hostile, grumpy, misunderstood, hopeless, or easily lose his/her temper. Unexplained aches and pains are also common symptoms of depression in young people.

Left untreated, teenage depression can lead to problems at home and school, drug abuse, self-loathing, homicidal violence or suicide. Being unable to understand the full consequences of their actions, teens may take risks resulting in harm to themselves or others. Experimenting with drugs and alcohol is common among depressed young people, even in elementary school-age children. Depression is one cause of early substance abuse, which can lead to a lifetime of struggle with addiction and health issues.

Depressed man photo available from Shutterstock