understanding depression - for family & friends

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Depression is one of the most common health issues for young people in Australia.

Many young people have occasional mood swings or experience times of irritability. If your young person seems sad or irritable most of the time, and this has gone on for a while and is stopping them from doing things that they used to enjoy, they may be experiencing depression.  

Family and friends might worry about what it means for their young person who is experiencing mental health challenges. It is easy to think about 'worse case scenarios' which can feel overwhelming. However, in most cases, depression doesn't become sever but is something that can be managed.


Download our fact sheet on depression

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What is depression?

Depression is one of the most common health issues for young people in Australia. 

Depression is the term used when feelings of sadness, depression and irritability have lasted longer than two weeks, affect most parts of daily life and stop people from taking part in activities that used to be enjoyable.  

There is no simple answer for why people develop depression. For most people, it is a combination of events or issues that end up impacting on their feelings, thoughts and behaviours.

What are the signs of depression?

A young person may be experiencing depression if, for more than two weeks, they've experienced some of the following changes:  

  • Changes in emotions:

    • appearing down, moody or irritable – for example being short-tempered or more sensitive to criticism than usual

    • tearfulness or frequent crying

    • tiredness, lack of energy and motivation

    • seeming worried or tense.

  • Changes in thinking:

    • difficulty concentrating and making decisions, or remembering things

    • expressions of worthlessness and guilt, such as being self-critical and self-blaming

    • negative body image and low self-esteem

    • having dark and gloomy thoughts, including thoughts of death or suicide.

  • Changes in behaviours:

    • no longer engaging in activities they used to enjoy, or doing so with less enthusiasm

    • less attention to personal hygiene and appearance

    • avoidance of peers and family interactions and more time spent alone

    • self harm behaviours.

  • Physical changes:

    • loss of appetite and weight (but sometimes people 'comfort eat' and put on weight)

    • trouble sleeping or over-sleeping and staying in bed most of the day

    • restlessness, agitation or being ‘slowed down’

    • unexplained aches and pains, such as headaches or stomach pains. 

Many young people experience some of these symptoms in response to stressful life events. What makes the experience of depression different is that the symptoms are more severe, happen more frequently and they tend to persist over time.

Common depression problems

There are two main types of depression that are considered to be disorders:

  1. Major depression – this is the condition that most people are familiar with. Major depression is usually experienced in ‘episodes’, with symptoms of depression building up over a period of a few weeks or more. It involves low mood and loss of interest and enjoyment in usual activities, in addition to other symptoms.  A person experiencing major depression may be unable to complete their school work or go to work and may even have difficulty getting out of bed.

  2. Mild depression (dysthymia) – this is often described as a ‘milder’ version of depression compared to major depression. There are usually less symptoms but they tend to go on for much longer, sometimes for many months. A person experiencing mild depression can often do their daily activities but it takes more effort and it’s less enjoyable.

You may also be concerned that you will get it wrong or make things worse if you discuss mental health concerns with your young person. However, there are simple ways of being effective as a support person and making a positive difference. Your role in supporting your young person is important and not to be underestimated. 

  • Let them know your concerns: If you think your young person may be experiencing a tough time, it’s OK to let them know what you have noticed. Be honest about why you’re worried and let them know you care for them. If they aren’t ready to talk, let them know you’d like to check in with them again soon if you’re still worried. See our tips on starting the conversation about mental health.

  • Listen to them: Take the time to listen to them at a time when they’re ready. Check that you have heard and understood them by repeating in your own words what you understood about their experience. You can check that you are 'getting’ what they are saying. 

  • Offer support: While it can feel tempting to want to ‘fix things’, try not to jump into ‘problem-solving mode’ straight away. Let your young person know that they don't have to go through things on their own and that you are there to help and support them. Let them know that professional help is also available.

  • Learn more: Learning more about depression will help you to understanding what your young person is going though and how you can help you to support them.

  • Don't blame yourself: There are many factors that can contribute to mental health issues and self-blame might get in the way of you offering the best support.

There are some things that you can encourage your young person to do to help manage their experience of depression.

  • Self-care: It's important to encourage self-care activities like eating well, exercising, getting enough sleep and avoiding alcohol and other drugs. You could suggest that they try some of our tips on supporting a young person’s healthy headspace.

  • Connecting with others: Encourage your young person to maintain contact with other people – such as friends, a teacher or coach. Spending time with their mob or Elders and reconnecting with country can also be helpful. You and your young person might want to do our interactive activity on building connections.

  • Participating in activities they enjoy: Encourage your young person to maintain or try enjoyable or relaxing activities. This can help boost their mood and help give them a sense of achievement. You and your young person might want to try our interactive activity on getting into life

Remember, it can feel hard for a young person experiencing depression to find the energy or motivation to do these things. Encourage them to start with one thing they know they can do, then slowly add things in step by step. This can help them feel like they’re making good progress. 

If your young person doesn’t seem to be improving over time, or if things seem to be getting worse, encourage them to seek professional help. You could support them to visit their local doctor or their nearest headspace centre, or contact eheadspace for online and phone support. If they are attending school, TAFE or university, they may also be able to access a student counselling or wellbeing service.

An important part of professional support is often psychological therapy. This might involve helping the young person to understand their experiences of depression and to change unhelpful thinking and behaviour patterns. Antidepressant medications can also be added if they are needed.

The good news is that most young people experiencing depression respond well to treatment. While some days may not be as good as others, with support your young person can get back to enjoying life again. Remember, getting support and treatment early can make a big difference when dealing with depression, and help to prevent further episodes of depression. 

Family and friends often neglect their own needs because they are busy looking after others, or because they feel guilty taking time for themselves. It’s important that, while you take care of someone, you also look after your own mental health. Check out our tips on self care for family and friends, talk to someone you trust, or seek professional help. 

Some young people who experience depression may harm themselves or experience suicidal thoughts. For many young people, self harm behaviours and thoughts about suicide are ways of coping with difficult emotions. See the below links to learn more about self harm and suicide. 

If you are concerned that a young person is engaging in self harm or is experiencing suicidal thoughts, encourage them to seek professional help. 

Where to get support

For immediate help contact triple zero (000) if it is an emergency.

National 24/7 crisis services:  
Lifeline: 13 11 14 or lifeline.org.au  
Suicide Call Back Service: 1300 659 467 or suicidecallbackservice.org.au  
beyondblue: 1300 224 636 or beyondblue.org.au

Additional youth support services:  
headspace: find your nearest centre or contact eheadspace, our phone and online service (12-25 years) 
Kids Helpline: 1800 55 1800 (5-25 years) or kidshelpline.com.au
ReachOut (under 25 years): reachout.com.au
SANE Australia: 1800 187 263 (18+ years): sane.org
Remember, professional support is available for both you and your young person. For more advice and guidance on how you can best support your young person, visit the websites below or contact eheadspace and talk to one of our family and friends’ specialists.  


Other useful resources:

  • Parent helplines (in every State and Territory of Australia) – Google ‘Parentline’ along with your State or Territory 

  • Raising Children Network is an online resource for parents and carers filled with tips and tools for raising young people   

  • headspace Group Chats hosts many discussions for family and friends with a range of topics. You can register to join or view the transcripts.  

  • headspace has a number of interactive activities that can help young people and their family and friends reflect on their needs, engage in skill building and set meaningful goals to improve mental health and wellbeing.  

The headspace Clinical Reference Group oversee and approve clinical resources made available on this website.

Last reviewed 27 April 2021



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