Peace of Mind: Depression

What is depression?

People who experience periods of prolonged sadness and despondency may be suffering from depressive disorder—commonly referred to as depression. Clinically speaking, depression is considered a mood disorder—a mental illness which dramatically impacts a person’s mental state or mood. The length of a depressive episode may last for two weeks or longer and always effects the way someone lives their life. People who are depressed will often contend with irregular sleeping patterns (too much or too little sleep), poor eating habits (over-eating or under-eating), a loss of energy, poor concentration, a lack of motivation, and a distorted self-image. Depressive disorders can emerge at almost any age but generally present themselves between the ages of 15 and 30. The causes of depression vary from person to person. Mental health professionals look at everything from someone’s family history, experiences of trauma, personality, and medical history when treating patients.

Is depression common among high school students?

Depressive disorder is sometimes difficult to diagnose in high school students because of the emotional rollercoaster that accompanies adolescence. Some mental health professionals believe that depression sometimes hides in the tumultuous inner world of a young person.

Statistically, depression is a sizeable and growing problem among adolescents. Prior to the pandemic, a John Hopkin’s University study found that nearly nine percent of teens experienced at least one depressive episode over a 12-month period. In Ontario, a Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) voluntary screening tool used by 10,000 respondents found that 34 percent of pre-pandemic youth were experiencing significant mental health challenges including depression. These numbers were further highlighted by a 45 percent spike in emergency room visits by youth experiencing a mental health crisis.

Then the pandemic hit. A SickKids study out of Toronto—released during the pandemic—found that more than half of the nearly 800 children and over 70 percent of the 500 adolescents involved in the study experienced significant symptoms of depression. At a glance, the numbers paint a disturbing picture about the rise in youth experiencing depression.  Therefore, the simple answer to question posed in the heading is: YES, with 10 percent of youth being a conservative estimate when it comes to those suffering from mental health professionals call depressive disorder.

Warning signs

According to the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), parents, teachers and guidance counsellors should be on the lookout for the following warning signs when it comes to youth depression:

  • Changes in feelings – prolonged periods of sadness, anger, unhappiness and/or excessive guilt, fear, and worry.
  • Changes in physical health – the emergence of headaches, aches and pains, over-eating/under-eating, weight gain/weight loss, excessive sleeping, or insomnia.
  • Changes in thinking – negative views of self, demonstrated in expressions of poor self-esteem, self-image, self-worth; difficulty concentrating; suicidal ideation.
  • Changes in behaviour – withdrawal from social and family situations; a loss of interest in things they once enjoyed (i.e., sports, movies, etc.); over-reactions to situations that may result in outbursts of tears or anger.

Since it would be inappropriate, these warning signs are not shared so that guidance counsellors can diagnose depression. They are shared so that conversations may be initiated with students, parents and the school team should concerns arise. Guidance counsellors will also note that many of the warning signs are aspects of the journey through adolescence. Therefore, a mental health professional is best positioned to determine whether the young person has developed a depressive disorder.

Next steps

The good news is that depression is treatable through talk therapy and medication or a combination of the two. If the warning signs are addressed and a diagnosis is sought and given, the student can begin their recovery journey with the guidance of a mental health professional and those closest to them, particularly their family.

In the meantime, caregivers—guidance counsellors included—can encourage students who are experiencing depression to do all the things that promote better mental health: a good diet, exercise, and proper sleep patterns. The problem for a student experiencing a depressive episode is that they often feel incapable of taking on even the smallest of tasks, and might struggle to do something as seemingly simple as taking a walk or eating a good meal. Constant encouragement and a positive outlook are a must for caregivers.

A person experiencing depression needs a team to help lift them out of their mental state. While the individual will do the hard work, a group of people who care for them can make all the difference when it comes to their recovery.

By: Sean Dolan