The world can seem a lonely place when one is depressed. Image Credit: Shutterstock

“I would sleep a lot in those days. I only remember a dark room and me getting into bed. I wanted the world to leave me alone,” says Arun, who requested anonymity, while talking about his teenage depression. He’s recalling a period of about two years after his parents had separated and he was taken to a new city where he lived with his father who wasn’t around much. There were financial constraints and in the middle of all the drama – the well-meaning but disruptive intervention by relatives – loneliness (he had dropped out of school); and cash crunch, he found himself in a tunnel of despair.

The topple into depression was made complete by his hitting puberty and the rush of hormones that caused break-outs and mood swings. The dark days in bed helped.

For Reina, who also asked her name to be changed, life seemed out of a storybook – she was doing well in school, she had supportive parents and friends, and was on her way to a good college where she would do a course of her choosing. “I still have scars from the cuts I made,” she says. “The pain would calm me and scare me – but the hollowness was too great, I needed to feel something.”

The only thing these two have in common is the fact that they were teenagers when they were struck by depression.

According to the World Health Organisation, depression affects among 1.1 per cent of adolescents aged 10-14 years, and 2.8 per cent of 15-19-year-olds.


Are teens susceptible to depression?

Yes, actually. US-based Brain and Behaviour Research Foundation explains that a teen brain is still growing and developing – unfortunately, the areas are maturing at different rates. Carrie Bearden, Ph.D., Professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, was quoted as saying by the foundation that “the region that responds to rewards becoming highly active before the area that regulates self-control. This asynchrony may help explain why teenagers are so likely to engage in risky and often detrimental behaviours.”

Then there’s the nap factor. Sleep – or the lack of it – is known to affect depression and vice-versa. “Either one can be the starting point,” Johns Hopkins sleep researcher Patrick H. Finan, Ph.D, said on the US-based hospital’s website. “Poor sleep may create difficulties regulating emotions that, in turn, may leave you more vulnerable to depression in the future — months or even years from now. And depression itself is associated with sleep difficulties such as shortening the amount of restorative slow-wave sleep a person gets each night.” Now teens don’t get enough nap time in anyway. This is due to one or more of the following reasons:

Melatonin production: The average teenager’s body will produce this ‘sleep hormone’ later into the night than an adult’s will. However, they need about 8 to 10 hours of sleep a day, so given their way, they’d sleep to mid-morning – except they can’t; they’ve got school.

Social media: The new way to socialise – and to keep track of everything can be quite addictive.

Over-promising: There are only so many minutes in a day and they may want to get the most out it – which means they may ignore the call of their bodies to rest.

All together, the lack of sleep may exacerbate any condition a person is feeling, including depression.

Add to that the pressure to conform while being individualistic, to chase likes on a social platform while not understanding the lure, to make friends and be popular – it can be very, very overwhelming.

What are the symptoms of depression?

US-based Mayo Clinic calls for being vigilant when you see emotional, attitude or behavioural changes, which may include:

  • Feelings of sadness, which can include crying spells for no apparent reason
  • Frustration or feelings of anger, even over small matters
  • Feeling hopeless or empty
  • Irritable or annoyed mood
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in usual activities
  • Loss of interest in, or conflict with, family and friends
  • Low self-esteem
  • Feelings of worthlessness or guilt
  • Fixation on past failures or exaggerated self-blame or self-criticism
  • Extreme sensitivity to rejection or failure, and the need for excessive reassurance
  • Trouble thinking, concentrating, making decisions and remembering things
  • Ongoing sense that life and the future are grim and bleak
  • Frequent thoughts of death, dying or suicide

A cry for help

If you come across a teenager who is exhibiting any of these feelings, know that it is a cry for help. This is especially true for anyone self-harming. Priyanka Dang, Clinical Psychologist at Open Minds Psychiatry, Counselling and Neuroscience Centre, told Gulf News in an earlier interview that a child who is indulging in self-harm is suffering. The unhealthy behaviour may be a way to:

  • get the pain out
  • be distracted from it
  • communicate feelings to somebody else and find comfort
  • means of self-punishment or an attempt to gain some control over life

“Overall, it is a way of expressing very deep distress (which cannot be easily put into words),” Dang explained.

A child who is indulging in self-harm is suffering ... it is a way of expressing very deep distress.

- Priyanka Dang

So you’ve seen the marks. Now what?

Don’t panic. Reina recalls the first time she spoke to her mum about her self-mutilation. First there were tears, then came denial. “She said there was no cause for me to be unhappy,” she recalls. It would be a while before her mum came around to acceptance and therapy, leading to Reina’s recovery.

Dr Waleed Ahmed, Consultant Psychiatrist, Priory Wellbeing Centre, says, “We have all been prone to panic parenting at a few points in our lives. At times an extraordinary emotional response is required when the child is immediately in harm’s way or has had a near miss – the ‘fight and flight’ response that gets people out of harm’s way. But those are the exceptions rather than the norm. The general rule of thumb is that a calm and collected approach is the best, even if it is not always the easy option! From my experience, parents have found the following tips helpful when you find yourself in panic parent mode:

1. It is useful to think of the last time you had a panic parenting response and then visualise how your response could be different next time – use the “if this, then that” technique, and mentally prepare for what you will say and do differently in response to something that would normally get you in that panic mode. It may be helpful to even write down what you have to say and how you are going to say it, so that you are not fumbling in the moment. You and your partner could to do this together.

Remind yourself that it is not personal and there is no blame

2. Remind yourself that it is not personal and there is no blame. This is true even if in the heat of the moment when there is blame being directed. See point one!

3. Take some time and walk away from the heated situation if you need to before coming back to address it – always let your child know what you are doing.”

We have all been prone to panic parenting at a few points in our lives. At times an extraordinary emotional response is required when the child is immediately in harm’s way or has had a near miss. But those are the exceptions rather than the norm. The general rule of thumb is that a calm and collected approach is the best.

- Dr Waleed Ahmed

If you have seen the marks and are concerned and your child isn’t comfortable talking about it, adds Dr Ahmed, stay calm. Talking about self-harm is potentially a difficult and sometimes private topic, he explains. “Children and young people may not always open up and speak freely with you as a parent. At times, they may want to protect you and think they may add to your stress especially if there are other obvious family stresses happening at the same time. Occasionally they may be upset with you. Whatever the reason, you may not ultimately really know why your child may not be communicating with you regarding the self-harm. Things that may help to encourage them to talk about it could include:

1. Take a calm approach – this signals to them that you can be trusted with what they have to say to you. The opposite would be to take a confrontational approach.

2. Acknowledge that you have observed the marks, and that you would like to help.

3. Discuss how even if they do not feel comfortable talking to you about it, they could speak to another trusting adult – a relative or friend.

4. Offer them the opportunity to get professional help.

5. Sometimes it may be helpful to bring the issue up when you are doing something unrelated and neutral together.”

Be alert, but remember you are human too

Generally there is a biological urge that comes with the birth of an offspring, to help him or her do well, be well and happy. So when you see this little person struggle it seems like a personal failure. Fight the voice inside your head that tells you it is – every person has their own story to write, all you can do is be there if they need a sounding board.

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