Is That a Sign of Depression? How to Spot Depression in Family Members of All Ages

Your fifth-grader suddenly wants to quit his beloved baseball team. Your teenager has gotten three detentions in the past month. And your dad just celebrated his 65th birthday, but his energy level has dropped.

It’s possible that your family members are just going through some stressful times. However, it’s also possible that they’re experiencing something more serious: depression.

Depression — also called major depressive disorder or clinical depression — is a mood disorder that causes constant sadness. It affects how someone thinks, feels, and behaves, and can take a toll on their emotional and physical health.

  1. It’s common for depression to run in families.
  2. 22.3% of adults in Shawnee County have been diagnosed with depression sometime in their lifetime — compared to 18.1% in the state of Kansas.
  3. 25% of Kansas high school students have had symptoms of depression, and 16% have had suicidal thoughts, attempts, or related injuries.
  4. 17.8% of the Kansas Medicare population — those who are 65 or older, under age 65 with certain disabilities, or who have end-stage renal disease — have been treated for depression.
  5. Depression might be common, but there is good news: It’s one of the most treatable mental health conditions. With treatment, many people can live normal lives.

Anyone can experience depression — kids, older adults, and everyone in between. While many symptoms are the same among age groups, some symptoms can vary by age. When you’re caring for children, aging parents, and yourself, it’s important to know when those lows are more than just a funk.

Here’s how to spot depression in your family members, from your elementary school child to your elderly parents.

Signs of Depression at All Ages

Regardless of a person’s age, there are several hallmark symptoms of depression. Yes, everyone can experience these symptoms at some point, especially after a traumatic event, like a death in the family.

But when these symptoms last almost every day, throughout the whole day and night, and for 2 or more weeks, they may be a sign of depression:

  • Constant sadness, anxiety, hopelessness, or pessimism
  • An “empty” feeling
  • Feelings of guilt or worthlessness
  • Decreased energy
  • Restlessness
  • Difficulty remembering, concentrating, or making decisions
  • Difficulty falling or staying asleep, or oversleeping
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in activities or hobbies
  • Unintended changes in weight or appetite
  • Unexplained digestive problems, aches and pains, headaches, or cramps that do not go away with treatment

In severe cases, a person may have thoughts of death or suicide, or could attempt suicide.

Depression in Children and Adolescents

Decades ago, it would have been very unusual to find out that your child or teenager had depression.

Today?

It’s a lot more common. Depression rates have been rising in children and adolescents throughout the past few decades. In 2005, 8.7% of adolescents (ages 12-17) and 8.8% of young adults (ages 18-25) had depression. Within a decade, those numbers increased to 11.3% in adolescents and 9.6% in young adults.

How Depression Is Different in Children and Adolescents

Depression can look a little different in younger people than it does in adults. Compared to adults, children and teenagers are more likely to have irritability and anger as their main symptoms. Storming into the house, slamming the door, and practically seething over not being served their favorite dinner can become normal—and nerve-racking—occurrences.

Younger children also have a higher likelihood of experiencing physical symptoms, especially when separated from their parents. You might get a call after you’ve dropped your child off at daycare, telling you that they have a stomachache — but once you’ve picked them up, the stomachache has mysteriously disappeared.

It’s normal for children and teenagers to have some mood or personality changes as they get older (that first breakup is a tough one), but look for these red flags that something more serious is going on, such as:

  • Not wanting to play with their friends anymore
  • Giving away prized possessions
  • Running away from home (or talking about running away)
  • Getting in more trouble at school or home than usual
  • A negative change in academic performance (with no other explanation, such as a learning disability)
  • Suddenly wanting to quit activities, such as sports or clubs, that they once enjoyed

Why It’s a Problem

It’s not just the difference in symptoms that makes it difficult to diagnose depression in children and adolescents.

Younger people can’t always understand their emotions or express them to others. Older kids and teenagers may worry about what their peers will think. Now, you’re stuck playing that guessing game of “What the heck is going on with my kid?”

This is why a 2016 study found that about 37% of adults with depression did not receive treatment — compared to a whopping 60% in adolescents ages 12 to 17.

Unfortunately, this can lead to devastating consequences. Adolescents with depression are at risk of abusing drugs or alcohol to make themselves feel better. And both children and adolescents are at an increased risk of committing suicide.

Depression in Older Adults

Older adults — generally described as adults over age 60 or 65 — have an increased risk of experiencing depression. That’s largely because depression is more common when you have medical conditions, such as cancer or heart disease — and about 80% of older adults have at least one chronic (long-lasting) health condition. About 50% have two or more.

How Depression Is Different in Older Adults

The symptoms themselves aren’t too different from those in most younger adults. However, some of the common ones are similar to normal signs of aging.

For example, both depression and aging can cause feelings of sadness or emptiness. As adults get older, they may struggle with more friends or loved ones passing away. They also might be thinking more about how their own life is winding down.

Then there’s the insomnia or fatigue that comes with aging. However, these could also be signs of depression.

Why It’s a Problem

Because many of the symptoms of depression and aging overlap, it’s easy to confuse the two and brush off things like sadness or fatigue as “just getting older.” If they do brush it off, they might not bring up symptoms with their loved ones or their health care providers, making it more difficult to diagnose.

Even if they do recognize that they could have depression, older adults might not seek out the care they need. There are several reasons why this may happen, such as:

  • Believing that because the symptoms are similar to those of aging, they can’t be improved with treatment
  • Fearing the stigma surrounding mental health disorders, and what might happen if others find out
  • Being more concerned about other health conditions, such as diabetes, and preferring to focus on those conditions, instead
  • Being in denial

What You Can Do About It

Once a suspicion of depression is in the picture, there are two things to do right away: Get them help and do not panic. Many cases of depression — even the most severe ones — can be successfully treated.

Your child’s or parent’s primary care provider or behavioral health therapist might recommend antidepressant medications, talking to a therapist, practicing yoga, trying a new diet — the list of possibilities goes on. Keep an open mind and remember that depression can be treated in many different ways. It depends on your child’s or parent’s symptoms and individual needs.

As your child or parent goes through treatment, reassure them that you’re there for them — whether that means a shoulder to cry on or a ride to an appointment.

With the right treatment and support from you and your family, depression does not have to stand in the way of your loved one leading a happy, normal life.

And, of course, the same goes for yourself as well: If you believe you are experiencing depression, don’t hesitate to seek professional help and be open with your family about ways they can support you. Remember: You can’t help them if you’re not helping yourself, too.

If you believe that you, your child, or your parent has depression, contact their primary care provider, pediatrician, or a behavioral health provider.

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