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Parsing Teen Depression Risks from Normal Teen Behavior

During adolescence kids behave in ways that cause parents to scratch their heads. A sulky attitude, an insatiable hunger and a preference for friends over family are just a few of the traits that make parents wonder if their child has been brainwashed or abducted by aliens. Many of these behaviors are developmentally normal. However, some behaviors that are typical of teens may, in combination, point to a potential mental health challenge.

depressed teenage girl

A study by Sweden’s Karolinska Institutet identified three behaviors that could increase the risk for developing a mental disorder: high levels of media use; few hours of sleep; and low levels of physical activity.

The researchers recruited 12,000 adolescents between the ages of 14 and 16 from 11 European countries. The teens were asked to report on multiple areas of health risk, as well as psychiatric symptoms.

The findings uncovered a “high risk” group consisting of 13 percent of the participants who scored high on all of the risk behaviors. The “low-risk” teens were those had either no or a low frequency of risk behaviors, and that made up 58 percent of the teens.

In addition to the high-risk and low-risk groups, there was a third group making up 30 percent that the researchers labeled the “invisible risk” group. These teens were not exhibiting behaviors that teachers or parents might identify as signs of a mental health problem, but they had similar occurrences of suicidal thoughts, sub-threshold depression, depression and anxiety when compared with the high-risk group of teens.

The study’s first author Vladimir Carli, M.D., Ph.D., says this is cause for significant concern. The teens in this group had a high incidence of psychopathological symptoms, and while high-risk teens are easily identified because of behaviors like substance use, those in the invisible-risk group likely fly under the radar and miss the attention of parents and teachers.

This is the first study to determine a broader group of risk factors and lifestyles. The researchers then examined their association with symptoms of mental illness.

The findings demonstrated the prevalence of psychopathology, but also risk, which are all relatively common in adolescents. The risk factors, which were shown to increase with age, were more likely to occur in boys. Meanwhile, emotional symptoms like anxiety, thoughts of suicide and depression are more common among girls.

The study’s results highlight the need for parental awareness of significant changes in their teenage child’s behaviors. A teen that gets just a few hours of sleep, for instance, may require an adjustment in exercise levels, caffeine consumption and possibly stress in order to get healthy rest.

There are multiple reasons for parents to monitor media use. The non-stop communication between teens via social networking has introduced public forums for bullying and other unhealthy behaviors. In general, any media use through television, video games or a computer all represent time that a teen is not studying or interacting with family.

Low activity levels can also be cause for concern. Parents may brush off worries about a sluggish teen, believing that a long day at school wears them out. However, a lack of motivation can mask symptoms of depression. Loneliness, hopelessness and low mood can be mistaken for milder teenage sluggishness.

Parents can help their teens avoid these invisible risks by watching for significant changes in behaviors and helping teens to participate in healthy activities like physical exercise that provide face-to-face interactions with peers and plenty of opportunity for a good night’s sleep.

Posted on March 7th, 2014
Posted in Depression

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