The teenage years are a time of change. For most teens, emotional ups and downs and moodiness are normal. But an increasing number of young people are experiencing mental health challenges.

Mental health issues were already rising pre-COVID-19. The pandemic then negatively affected youth mental health, according to Statistics Canada. Today mental illness or disorders affect an estimated 20% of Canada’s youth. But just 1 in 5 young Canadians who need mental health services actually get them.

The barriers to accessing mental health services are complex. But raising awareness about the signs of teen depression and cutting through the stigmas surrounding mental illness can help. Dr. Marshall Korenblum, associate professor, Department of Psychiatry at the University of Toronto Faculty of Medicine, explains how.

What are the signs of depression in teens?

Depression looks a little different for teens than for adults. This is thanks in part to hormones that are still raging after puberty, says Korenblum. He says depression can cause disturbances in sleep and appetite.  “This is very prominent in teens compared to adults. Your teen may be sleeping more or eating much more — or much less — than usual.”

You may also see differences in their relationships, both with you and their peers. Teens with depression are likely to feel irritable and isolated. You may feel shut out of their lives and notice they’re spending a lot less time with friends.

There are also immediate and dangerous warning signs of serious depression. Get help right away if your teen starts:

  • Selling or giving away their belongings
  • Dropping out of activities, especially ones they used to love
  • Mentioning that they feel trapped or like a burden

These signs might signal your teen is grappling with severe depression or has become suicidal. It’s important to seek immediate medical attention.

How to help a teen struggling with their mental health

  • Start by talking about the symptoms you’ve noticed. Rather than trying to interpret your teen’s mood. For example, “I notice you’ve been spending more time in your room. Is everything okay?”
  • Share your own experiences with depression, mental illness or emotional struggles in your youth. “There are two things teens don’t want to be thought of as: weak or weird,” says Korenblum. Sharing your own story helps break through the stigma surrounding depression, which may encourage your teen to open up.
  • From there, reach out to your family doctor or paediatrician for help, says Korenblum. “Certain health issues, including anemia, an under-active thyroid and infectious mononucleosis, can mimic the symptoms of depression. Your doctor can rule out other potential causes. And, if needed, guide you toward a depression treatment plan that works for your family.”
  • Ask your teen’s permission to get support from other role models in their life. A role model can provide your teen with a safe environment to talk about feelings and struggles. This could be a beloved soccer coach or trusted guitar teacher. If you’re a religious household, it could be a pastor, rabbi or youth group leader.
  • Finally, encourage a healthy lifestyle at home by serving nutritious meals and encouraging physical activity. “Good physical health leads to good mental health, and vice versa,” says Korenblum. Invest in a sun lamp for your teen to use in the morning, especially in the winter months. “Light exposure is an easy way to activate the chemicals that antidepressants do, with no side effects,” he says.

Take care of yourself, too

Helping someone you love grapple with depression can challenge your own mental health. If you’re struggling, look into support and self-help groups in your area. And consider parental or family counselling for help. This will help you protect your own wellbeing. It can also help you stay strong and provide the stable support your teen needs.

We’re here to help 

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Find a mental health professional for virtual and in-person appointments on Lumino Health.


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This article is meant to provide general information only. It’s not professional medical advice, or a substitute for that advice.