Health and Wholeness

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Hope & healing: Understanding teen depression

Image by MikeRenpening, Pixabay.
Image by MikeRenpening, Pixabay.

Depression is a natural emotion that often occurs during a difficult time in a person’s life such as a move, the death of a loved one or the loss of a person. For teens, difficult times often arise from the transitional period in their lives where their bodies are changing, their emotions are changing, and more demands are placed upon them. Thus, teens are quite susceptible to depression. While it is natural to feel depressed from time to time, most people are able to feel better within days. Clinical depression, however, is a medical illness that can last years. Not only does it affect the way people feel, it also affects the way they think and act.

Clinical depression in teens can take the form of:

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  • Sadness, agitation, isolation
  • A drop in academic performance
  • A sense of being overwhelmed
  • Loss of interest in activities they previously found enjoyable
  • Self-medication via drugs or alcohol
  • Self-mutilation such as cutting or burning themselves

Too often, parents misunderstand the signs of depression and label it “dramatic teen stuff.” However, teens who suffer from depression don’t intend to be lazy, moody or difficult. Teens who suffer from depression already feel like the world is against them and need compassion, patience and help. More importantly, they need to know there is hope.

Dr. Gary Nelson, a retired UMC pastor, currently strives to raise awareness of teen depression. Dr. Nelson has worked as a pastoral counselor and therapist for over 40 years. Here are Dr. Nelson’s tips for church leaders on how to identify teen depression and what to do when faced with a teen who suffers from depression.

Things you can do as a parent or youth leader:

Pray. Often times, depression among teens may be hard to identify due to the moving pieces going on in their lives. If you have a teen who may be showing symptoms of depression ask God for discernment. Pray for the teen – their life, their academic endeavors, their friendships, their goals in life and their relationship with God. You can also offer to pray with and for them.

Just keep loving them. Parents often get angry when their wonderful kids suffer from depression because underneath that anger is fear; fear of not knowing what to do or how to handle the situation. Teens don’t need their parents or adult mentors to punish them for their actions caused by depression. God only calls us to love one another. God’s glory will manifest itself.

Stay in relationship. Don’t destroy the relationship you have with your teen. As a youth leader, one of the hardest ways of tackling teen depression can be talking to the parents and figuring out a way to explain things to the parents so they can save face in front of their children.

Seek professional help. Clinical depression is a medical illness that causes a chemical imbalance in the brain and other physiological issues that must be treated with medication.

In the words of Dr. Nelson, remember that “God can heal and because God can heal, there is hope.”

Other resources by Dr. Gary Nelson:


Dr. Gary Nelson is a retired therapist, pastoral counselor and a retired pastor of the United Methodist Church. He is the author of A Relentless Hope: Surviving the Storm of Teen Depression. Dr. Nelson was moved to bring awareness about teen depression and hope in God after almost losing his son to this very illness. Dr. Nelson can be reached at [email protected].

For more information on teen depression, please reference the National Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.