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Depression Among Youth

Mental health disorders are the most common diseases that occur during childhood.

Over 17 million children in the U.S. suffer from a psychiatric disorder, such as anxiety or depression. While roughly half of all psychiatric illnesses become present before the age of 14, less than half of depressed teenagers will be correctly diagnosed and treated.

Given these alarming statistics, we examined data from the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (SAMHSA) to better understand the grip of mental illness in schools and homes across the nation. We examined the occurrence of major depressive episodes (MDEs) among American boys and girls aged 12 to 17 years old across races and ethnicities. Continue reading to see what we discovered about the state of mental health among America’s teens.

Severe Occurrences


MDEs in youth are characterized by persistent irritable moods, disturbed sleep, ideas of self-harm, and reduced self-esteem and confidence. Severe cases can lead to decreased socialization, below-standard grades or work performance, self-injury, and even thoughts of suicide.

When we examined trends in MDEs, the SAMHSA data showed an overall increase between 2014 and 2015 for girls, with MDEs generally increasing between the ages of 12 and 17. While 2014 data showed a continuous increase in the prevalence of MDEs as children got older, 2015 data showed a spike in depressive episodes in girls aged 15 to 16 years old and in boys aged 16 years old.

Research has shown that depression and subsequent disorders like anxiety have risen over the years and that stress is a prominent factor contributing to teenage depression today. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), teens may deal with equal or higher levels of stress than adults. The impact of pressure to perform at school, and the emotional stress associated young relationships and peer pressure can contribute to increased stress levels and depressive tendencies among young people. According to the APA, even during the summer, when kids aren’t in school, their stress level can still rival that of an adult.

Stress levels and rates of depression are higher in girls than in boys. While research has shown this increased rate of depression is often attributed to chemical and hormonal imbalances that occur when girls enter puberty, studies have also linked these depressive episodes to psychosocial factors like cyberbullying and peer pressure. Cyberbullying (and emotional bullying in general) is twice as likely to happen to girls than boys; MDEs were two to three times as likely to occur in girls as well.

 Cyberbullying – bullying that takes place through internet based outlets like social media or instant messaging – affects over half of young people today. Research suggests that nearly 14 percent of students facing cyberbullying attacks have a “severe or traumatic” reaction to the teasing or name calling that may continue for weeks or months without a parent or teacher becoming aware. Sadly, cases like that of 13 year-old Megan Meier who suffered from depression and self-esteem issues before taking her own life after being bullied on the social networking site MySpace for over a month indicate the far reaching effects that cyberbullying can have on young people today.

Racial Divide

SAMHSA data compiled between 2004 and 2015 indicated that the percentage of teenagers and youth who experienced at least one major depressive episode were highest among those who identified as being two or more races.

For many years, studies have attributed this increased likelihood of depression among multi-ethnic teens to struggles with racial identification, which can lead to a lack of self-esteem, social isolation, and difficult family dynamics. This has led researchers to label being multiracial as a source of stress that exacerbates mental and physical health concerns like depression.

The percentage of multiracial individuals who have experienced a major depressive episode has increased by more than 3 percentage points since 2004, indicating that many fail to understand the turmoil associated with identifying as a mixed race or the pressures and racism that these teens may be facing. As the multiracial population continues to grow across the world, adapting outreach and prevention programs to their specific needs and experiences may help reduce the prevalence of depression among those who identify with more than one race.

While the percentage of young American Indians and Alaska Natives experiencing a major depressive episode has decreased over the 12 years of data compiled, studies have shown that suicide for this group is the second-leading cause of death (3.5 times higher than the national average) among adolescents aged 15 to 24 years old. Unfortunately, because of the way mental health issues are reported and managed by American Indian tribes, depression largely goes undiagnosed and untreated over the course of their lifetime. The stigma and shame associated with mental health conditions may also contribute to the high rates of suicide among American Indian and Alaska Native youth.

Caucasian and Hispanic or Latino youth also typically reported higher percentages of depressive episodes among young people compared with black and Asian-American teens.

Substance Abuse and Depression

The coexistence of both a mental health and substance abuse disorder is referred to as a co-occurring disorder.

According to the SAMHSA data, nearly eight million adults and 340,000 adolescents who were diagnosed with a substance use disorder were also diagnosed with a mental health condition in 2014. Among teens and young people, professionals, like licensed counselor Chesbrough Roberts from Mountain Brook, Alabama, attribute co-occurring substance use disorders to teen self-medication. The effects of depression, particularly on social interactions and stress levels, lead teens to experiment with drugs like marijuana, pain relievers, and other stimulants. According to Roberts, “Kids are taking […] Adderall during the day and then smoking [marijuana] to calm their anxiety” from the effects of over-prescribed or high doses of prescription medication. Roberts sees environmental factors, such as the increased prevalence of social media and technology in the lives of teenagers, as largely responsible for increased rates of depression and co-occurring disorders. Additionally, like MDE’s, substance abuse can also develop as a response to traumatic events – further linking theses co-occurring disorders.

Additionally, research supports the idea that co-occurring substance use disorders can develop as an attempt at self-medication; it also points to an increase in social phobias as well as other substance use disorders. This is particularly true for the use of marijuana, which had the highest rate of co-occurring MDEs at over 22 percent. Data also point to the misuse of psychotherapeutics (12 percent) and pain relievers (7 percent); these are popular drugs among teens who experience MDEs. The short and long term effects of these substances can continue to compound the mental health issues of those ingesting them by impacting their mood, their perception of joy or euphoria, and their anxiety levels.

Increased Occurrences

When we looked at the percentage of MDEs among youth who also had a substance use disorder, occurrences of MDEs among youth with co-occurring drug abuse were significantly higher for those over the age of 13, particularly in teens between the ages of 14 and 15. Of all 14-15 year olds with SUD, over 33 percent experienced also experienced  MDE.

While research on why these conditions occur so frequently together is still largely incomplete, some studies suggest that one condition can contribute to the development of the other. Symptoms of drug abuse can include mental illnesses, and a mental illness like depression can also lead to drug abuse as a form of self-medication.

Unfortunately, both disorders can be caused by similar factors. Genetic vulnerabilities, stress or trauma, and brain defects can all lead to teenagers facing one or both conditions. Furthermore, changes in brain chemistry as children age can make them especially susceptible to addiction and other mental disorders during these pivotal developmental years.

Barriers to Support

Next, we looked at what encouraged teenagers to seek their most recent mental health services. Our analysis found that between 2014 and 2015, more adolescents cited that they may have a diagnosable condition, such as depression or an eating disorder, which encouraged them to reach out for help.

The increase in self-awareness may be due to successful state and national programs designed to educate youth on mental health conditions and reduce the stigma surrounding mental health issues.

Reasons that contributed to youth seeking help like thoughts of suicide, having eating problems, problems at school, and feeling depressed all increased an average of one to two percentage points between 2014 and 2015.

The overall reception of mental health services decreased slightly  between 2014 and 2015 – by 0.4 percent. In 2015, youth were less likely to cite having “problems with home/family” or having “problems with friends” as a reason for seeking help.

While relationships between family members and friends can be one of the primary sources of stress for teenagers, family history of mental illness and substance abuse can also be a factor in the diagnosis and treatment of these conditions.

reatment by the Numbers

The percentage of teenagers receiving treatment for depression over the last decade has fluctuated significantly over the years. Among teens between the ages of 12 and 13, receipt of treatment was lower than those aged 14 to 17 years old across most years and was at its lowest in 2009, 2012, and 2015.

While there were spikes of improvement over the years, fewer than half of depressed teenagers will be successfully diagnosed for their mental health conditions during adolescence. Unfortunately, untreated or incorrectly treated depression is a leading cause of youth suicide in the U.S.

Girls, who are more likely to experience a major depressive episode, were more likely to receive treatment over the past 10 years. At the highest peak in 2014, 42 percent of girls  diagnosed with depression were treated. Research has shown that men are less likely than women to seek support for mental health issues from their primary care providers, and studies have indicated that this behavior is learned rather than predisposed. Boys who may be learning from their parents may sometimes feel expressing emotions associated with mental health issues, like depression, are abnormal and should be avoided.

Finding Help

While rates of MDEs decreased for both girls and boys between 2014 and 2015, the percentage of teens with mental illnesses, like depression, has fluctuated over the past 10 years. Among teenagers with co-occurring disorders like substance abuse, the percentages of MDEs were significantly higher.

Teenagers today are facing difficulty participating in social interactions among fellow students and even friends and family, which has led them to feel more stress than adults on average. Some experts and studies have even pointed to the advent of social media as a potential catalyst for teenage depression and mental health disorders. Successful treatment must recognize the pressures of environmental factors in addition to the chemical and neurological imbalances of MDE to truly reach today’s affected youth.

No one should suffer through depression alone. If you’re the parent of an unhappy teenager and don’t know where to turn, visit us online at We provide a 24 hour helpline to connect those suffering from substance abuse and behavioral health issues with treatment options. Visit us online today to start discussing treatment centers in your area that can help you find the answers you’ve been looking for.


We combed through the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health to collect all of the data and statistics.

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