I remember it like it was yesterday. There I was lying in bed, trying to fall asleep, knowing that my mom would be waking me at 6:30 a.m. for school. I couldn’t fall asleep no matter how hard I tried. I felt sad, yet simultaneously empty — completely void of emotion. Sometimes I would lie there and wait, hoping the pain would eventually go away. Sometimes I would self-harm in a frantic effort to put pain somewhere else so my emotional pain would find temporary relief. Sometimes I would act out in angry rages that woke my parents.
The reality is that I spent most nights battling through this as a teenager. My depression was a mental prison, and I would never get out. Worst of all, it was a prison that tortured me every single day. Experiencing depression as a teenager was so frustrating!
As I tried to uncover the cause of my depression, I couldn't find any answers. My depression didn't make sense because life was good for me. I came from a good home, had a family that cared about me, went to a good school, had a few friends, and even had some girlfriends. With all of that, I should have been at least mildly happy on occasion. What was the problem?
As an adult, I've learned that everyone who experiences depression, experiences it uniquely. It’s important to find out how different people experience it to find better ways to get people the help they need.
As I write this, I’m 38 years old. Thinking about my experience as a teenager is hard and brings up lots of emotions for me. I’m writing this because adults often have a difficult time understanding teenagers, especially those experiencing depression. Here’s a glimpse into one perspective.
No matter how hard I tried, I was sad during the waking hours of the day. It wasn't an intensely clear form of sadness like you would observe in someone who is grieving the loss of a loved one. It was like the undertow of a river. You don't see it, but you know it's there and it's powerful.
I tried to do the right things to feel better — exercise, music, meditation, etc. In addition, I was incredibly consistent with all of the medications my psychiatrist prescribed to me.
It didn't seem to matter, though. All those things did was cover up the symptoms of my depression. In The Business of Story podcast, host Park Howell says: "The most important story you tell is the story you tell yourself." The story I told myself was that I was happy, because I so desperately wanted to believe it.
No matter how hard I tried to believe that story, I knew that my sadness was there. I would literally yell at my depression and tell it to just go away! It never listened.
It would just get worse as I began to obsess about it. It was hard to focus in school, on my homework, and on my extracurricular activities. All I could think about was my pain. One negative thought lead to another. My mind was like a tiny snowball being thrown down a hill in a cartoon. It got bigger and bigger as it raced to the bottom and took everything that it could along with it.
The next thing I knew, I was in an angry rage and I wanted to harm everyone in my vicinity. This was a "take no prisoners" mindset as I worked as hard as I could to hold everyone hostage in my presence. At home, this meant acting out violently. At school, this meant being disruptive. In my personal life, this meant being mean to people.
Eventually I would calm down and feel remorse for my behavior. Little did I know that this remorse would lead to more sadness and start the whole cycle again.
This is what it was like for me experiencing depression as a teenager.
Looking back, here’s what would have helped me during this time:
- Adults who embraced the idea that my feelings were confusing and patiently worked through them with me
- Parents who had the willingness and maturity to see that maybe their unresolved issues could be contributing to mine. (I wish my parents went to therapy for themselves)
- Friends who were comfortable sharing their stories with me. I’m sure I had friends who struggled as I did.
What does a depressed teenager look like?
To my friends, family, and peers, I appeared to be a normal, healthy teenager. A depressed teenager looks no different from any teenager. If you are aware of the signs and symptoms of depression, it can clue you in to deeper issues that may be going on. Here are some specific signs and symptoms of depression in teenagers.
How to motivate a depressed teenager
I honestly believe that it’s impossible to motivate anyone. In my opinion, motivation is a byproduct of taking action and learning new skills.
Rather that motivation, I encourage adults, parents, and guardians to focus on inspiration. Teenagers have some of the most accurate B.S. meters in the world. You can say whatever to them, but they are looking at your actions. Here is a parent’s guide to teen depression.
If you are a teenager and live with depression, I strongly encourage you to invest time in working on it each day. Working on your depression may include journaling, going to therapy, and reading about depression. It doesn’t matter what you do, as long as you do something. Here are some additional tips for teenagers.
As an adult, night time still has its difficulties. On some nights, I feel no different from how I did as a teenager, but on most nights, I sleep pretty well. The difference between my depression now and my depression as a teenager is awareness. I’m much more aware of what may be causing it because I put in the work each day.
No teenager should have to suffer as I did. George Bernard Shaw said: “Youth is wasted on the young.” I disagree. Youth should be a time of joy, happiness, and discovery, but for many, it’s a time of emotional torture.
Thank you for taking the time to read this article. Writing this was very difficult for me. I encourage you to bookmark it and learn about other teenagers’ stories.
In 2015, an estimated 3 million adolescents age 12 to 17 in the United States had at least one major depressive episode in the previous year, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Statistics like this are important to understand, but they only touch your brain. Stories touch your heart. In fact, some stories will touch your heart more than others. The more stories you read, the better you can understand depression in teenagers. The more you can understand depression in teens, the better you can help them.