Depression has become the leading cause of illness and disability among adolescents worldwide, which in most cases go undetected and untreated, increasing the risk of suicide.
Abdurahman Kenny, Mental Health Portfolio Manager for Pharma Dynamics says while teen mental health was already declining prior to COVID-19, the pandemic created conditions that exacerbated feelings of sadness and hopelessness.
“Disruptions to routines, missed milestones, extended school disruptions, prolonged social isolation, fear and anxiety over health and finances have without doubt taken a cumulative toll on the mental well-being of youth. Extraordinary stress and disruption as experienced during the pandemic can be very damaging for a child’s psyche that typically thrives on routine and predictability.”
The study found older children to be impacted more severely than younger ones, likely because of puberty, hormonal changes, and lack of social interaction. Girls were more prone to depression and anxiety than boys, which align with studies from before the pandemic.
Kenny explains that depression, anxiety and behavioural disorders are among the most common mental health concerns in youth.
“Depressive symptoms, such as sadness, loss of interest in activities that used to bring joy, disturbed sleep, changes in appetite, lack in concentration, irritability, low energy or little motivation to do anything, risky or harmful behaviour, substance abuse and feeling hopeless for weeks on end can lead to suicide ideation if not properly addressed.”
In South Africa, where we have limited mental health resources, it’s important for parents to become more aware of behavioural changes in their children in order to provide them with the right support.
Here’s what you can do as a parent:
1. Be there for your child. Show empathy and understanding – even if they don’t want to talk to you or do much of anything. Depression makes even doing the smallest of tasks difficult. Validate their emotions, but not their unhealthy behaviour. Ask questions about their mood in a non-threatening way. Don’t be judgemental or try to solve their problems, just listen to what they are saying and let them know that you are there for them, while showing compassion for what they’re going through.
2. Focus on the positive. Compliment them on the positive things they do – even if it’s just going to school, setting the dinner table or helping with the dishes. Try not to belabour their negative points, but rather acknowledge that they’re trying. They don’t want to feel this way. If they could snap out of it, they would, but depression doesn’t work that way. Showing love and appreciation for the little things they do well, will strengthen your relationship.
3. Encourage self-care. While it may be difficult for your teen to look after themselves while they’re feeling depressed, it’s vitally important. Getting regular exercise, eating healthy meals, sleeping enough, participating in sports and wholesome hobbies that make them feel good about themselves, limiting screen time and social media use, practising gratitude by keeping a journal, encouraging social interaction, setting achievable goals are all things they can do that will improve their mood and self-esteem.
4. Set boundaries. Healthy boundaries are essential for youth to form positive relationships with others. Setting these limits create physical and emotional safety for your teen, so they know what is acceptable and what is not. Even when they are depressed, rules should be respected.
5. Get them the help they need. Discuss going to a therapist if their mood doesn’t improve. If they don’t want to go, ask in what way you can help. If they tell you to back off, don’t retaliate with anger. It might just be their way of telling you they need space. Accept their response and give them some more time to think about it. If they don’t come back to you, ask your GP to recommend a few therapists. Then put the suggested therapists to your teen and ask them to make a choice. It’s important to make them feel involved in the process, which sets the stage for effective therapy.
Kenny says there are several kinds of therapy that might be helpful.
“These include interpersonal therapy, cognitive behavioural therapy and dialectical behavioural therapy, which all play a role in the recovery process. However, a thorough assessment should be done by a psychiatrist in order to recommend the most appropriate treatment for your child.
“Teenagers with depression may also benefit from medication, such as anti-depressants, but the best results are usually obtained when combining medicine with psychotherapy (talking with a therapist). That said, your teen has to be committed to therapy, therefore finding the right therapist that your child can connect with is key.”
He says while challenging behaviour tends to be the norm for teenagers, parents should be on the lookout for signs of depression as early detection and treatment are crucial.
For more info on how to manage depression, visit mydynamics.co.za or contact Pharma Dynamics’ toll-free helpline on 0800 205 026, which is manned by trained counsellors who are on call from 8am to 8pm, seven days a week.