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Understanding and dealing with depression – for young people

It’s normal to have mood swings or feel down from time to time. Young people feel sad after something upsetting has happened, like a relationship breakup or trouble with friends or family. Sometimes there is no obvious reason for feeling sad, but the feelings of sadness can pass with time. Feeling depressed is more than just feeling sad or down and it’s important to know when it can become a problem.
What is depression?
Depression is when feelings of sadness, emptiness and irritability (crankiness) last longer than two weeks, affect most parts of a person’s daily life, and stop them from doing things that they used to enjoy.
There is no simple answer for why depression happens. For some, a mix of events or issues can end up affecting how they feel, think and act. For others, there is no clear reason.
The good news is that most young people experiencing depression can get better with the right help. While some days may be better than others, with the right support you can get back to enjoying daily life.
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What are the signs of depression?

Depression can be different for everyone, but there are some common signs and symptoms.

  • Changes to feelings or emotions:
    • feeling unhappy, moody and irritable/snappy for more than two weeks. Some people also have feelings of emptiness or numbness
    • no longer enjoying things that used to be enjoyable
    • feeling worthless or guilty a lot of the time
    • feeling like everything has become ‘too hard’.
  • Changes to thoughts:
    • negative thoughts about themselves, the world and the future
    • having a hard time concentrating and making decisions, or remembering things
    • having thoughts of death or suicide.
  • Physical changes:
    • feeling tired most of the time
    • low energy and motivation
    • having trouble sleeping (getting to sleep, staying asleep or waking up in the morning)
    • loss of interest in food or eating too much, leading to weight loss or gain
    • aches and pains that can’t be explained.

Many young people experience some of these symptoms at different times in their lives. What makes depression different is that the symptoms are serious, they affect a person’s daily life, and they don’t tend to go away easily.

Sometimes people with depression experience other mental health problems too, such as anxiety, panic disorder or substance use disorders. Some young people experiment with alcohol and other drugs. These can help you feel good in the short term, but when the effects have worn off, alcohol and drugs can leave you feeling much worse in the long term.

What are the conditions of depression?

When someone has been experiencing signs of depression for a long time, they might have one of the conditions below:

  1. Major depression – this is usually experienced in ‘episodes’ with signs 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 ‘milder’ version of depression than 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.

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What can I do to improve my feelings?

There are lots of things that you can do to improve how you feel and ‘steer’ yourself back on the right track. The word  ‘STEER’ might help you to remember them.

It can feel hard to find the energy or motivation to do these things – sometimes it might feel like nothing will help. Try starting with one thing you know you can do, then slowly add things in step by step. This can help you feel like you’re making good progress.
S - Self-care

Looking after our minds and bodies can help us with our overall mental health and wellbeing. Eating well and getting good sleep are important starting points. Keeping active can have a huge impact on your mood and your energy levels, so try to get your heart rate up for 30 minutes at least three times a week by playing a sport or doing regular exercise. Try to avoid, or at least limit your use of alcohol and other drugs.  While they might help you to feel better in the short term, using alcohol and other drugs can leave you feeling much worse in the long term.

T - Thinking patterns

Being aware of our thoughts and feelings is an important step toward improving how we feel. Taking down notes on your thoughts can help you to figure out which thoughts make you feel better or worse. Here is an online workbook that can help you to understand this more.

E - Express your thoughts and feelings

It’s also a good idea to talk to someone that you trust about your thoughts and feelings. You might choose to talk with your family or friends, a teacher or coach, or your mob or Elders. Or you could get support from online forums, or express thoughts to yourself in a personal journal. Talking to others can help you feel understood and can also help you see things from a different point of view. Connecting with others and being part of a group, like a sporting club or religious group, can also help to lessen feelings of loneliness.

E - Enjoyment

It might take some extra effort but try to do something that you used to enjoy, even if you don’t feel like it. This can be very helpful in lifting your mood. Try to notice any changes in how you feel before and after these activities, to see those links for yourself. Learning new skills (such as learning to cook or to surf) can also help boost your confidence and help you feel like you’ve achieved something rewarding.

R - Relaxation

Being relaxed is great for stress and can help ease heavy emotions. Breathing exercises are just one way of taking time out and relaxing. Try counting your breaths in and out while noticing the feelings in your body. Mindfulness activities, listening to music and reconnecting with people or country can also be relaxing.

When should I get help?
For some people, using the ‘STEER’ tips will be enough to manage with their symptoms of depression. But if the depression has been going on for some time without improvement it can be hard to ‘steer’ out of it. If this is the case, it’s really important to get professional help. A local doctor or mental health professional can work with you and guide you through the recovery process. Getting help early can also make a big difference when dealing with depression so it’s a good idea to seek help sooner rather than later.
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 you can get back to enjoying daily life.
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Mental health professionals
There are mental health professionals at headspace centres and eheadspace (online and phone support) who can help. If you are at school or uni, you may also be able to access a counselling or student wellbeing service.
An important part of professional support can be talking (psychological) therapy, so you can learn more about how your depression works and how to change how you feel. Antidepressant medications can also be added if they are needed. These will all be suggested to you by your doctor or the service you reach out to.
Online programs and apps
Some young people prefer to access support online or on the phone before seeing a professional face-to-face counsellor. A few online (and free!) programs and apps that can help are listed here:
Indigenous Wellbeing Course - A course for Indigenous Australians to help them manage symptoms of stress, anxiety, worry and low mood.
Mood Mechanic Course - An online program for stress, worry, anxiety and depression in people aged 18–25.
E- Couch - Self-help program for depression, grief and loss, anxiety and relationship breakdown.
Breakup Shakeup - Fun, easy activities to help young people (14–25 years) cope after a breakup. 

Depression – suicide and self harm

Some young people who experience depression harm themselves or experience thoughts of suicide. Self harming and thoughts about suicide are often ways of coping with difficult emotions.

If you have thoughts of suicide or harming yourself, it’s really important to talk to someone you trust, such as a family member, friend or teacher. There are health professionals at headspace centres and eheadspace (online and phone support) who can help you to cope with difficult emotions and work out a plan to keep you safe.

You can also develop a safety plan yourself to help cope with feelings of distress and suicidal thoughts by using the BeyondNow app.

If you think you might act on any thoughts or plans to harm yourself, you can access crisis support 24/7 from Kids Helpline on 1800 55 1800 or Lifeline on 13 11 14.

If you have hurt yourself or need immediate support, call 000.

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

Last Reviewed 26 June 2017