Advances in medicine and awareness initiatives like World Mental Health Day (every October 10) are changing the conversation around mental illness in our society, and enabling millions of people to get the help they need. Still often overlooked, though, is the shockingly high prevalence of depression among children and teens.

Mental illness or disorders affect an estimated 10 to 20% of Canada’s youth, reports the Canadian Mental Health Association, but just 1 in 5 young Canadians who need mental health services actually get them.

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

What does depression look like in teens?

Depression looks a little different for teens than for adults, thanks in part to hormones that are still raging after puberty, says Korenblum. “The biological sides of depression, including disturbances of sleep and appetite, are very prominent in teens compared to adults,” he says. You may notice your teen sleeping more, or eating much more — or much less — than usual.

You may also notice differences in their relationships, both with you and their peers. Teens with depression are likely to feel irritable and isolated, so you may feel shut out of their lives and notice they’re spending significantly 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 prized possessions
  • 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, and require immediate medical attention.

How can you help if you suspect your teen is depressed?

To help your teen, start by talking about the symptoms you’ve noticed. Focus on objective and verifiable behaviours (“I notice you’ve been spending more time in your room. Is everything okay?”) rather than trying to interpret your teen’s mood.

Share your own experiences with depression, mental illness or emotional struggles in your youth. “There are 2 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, consult your general practitioner 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 his or her life. A beloved soccer coach, trusted guitar teacher or, if you’re a religious household, a pastor, rabbi or youth group leader can give your teen a safe environment to talk about feelings and struggles.

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 a safe, easy way of mobilizing the same chemicals that antidepressants do, with no side effects,” he says.

Take care of yourself, too

Helping someone else grapple with depression can challenge your own mental health. If you’re struggling, look into support and self-help groups in your area, such as the Mood Disorders Association of Ontario, and consider parental or family counselling for help. Not only will you protect your own wellbeing, but self-care can also help you stay strong and provide the stable support your teen needs.