Why are teenagers prone to depression?

Depressed or not in the mood?

The puberty is a time of change. Mental illness like depression occur more frequently. On which first signs should parents pay attention to?

Text: Constanze Löffler
Image: Alain Laboile - the photographer is the father of six children in southwest France, the picture comes from a series in which he photographed his own children and serves as a symbolic image.

Empty and Sadness 16-year-old Jakob has known since he switched from primary to secondary school. To drive them away he starts smoking weed. Later, the boy appears repeatedly drunk to class. When a trust teacher asks him about it, Jakob first denies the drunkenness and then starts to cry.

His life is completely screwed up and hopeless. He doesn't know what to do after school. And yes, he's thinking about killing himself. The teacher immediately calls Alain Di Gallo. The director of the Clinic for Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Basel is alarmed. "I called Jakob and his mother to the clinic that evening," he recalls.

For the psychiatrist, everything points to depression.

There the boy says that his parents have been separated for five years. His mother explains that she suffered greatly from her husband's unexpected departure and had hardly been there for her son. Jakob is convinced that his friends would no longer like him either. He withdrew more and more and immersed in comic drawing. For the psychiatrist everything points to one depression down.

Around one child per school class suffers from depression that needs treatment.

There are many stories like Jakob's. In the Swiss SMASH study from 2002 gave 35 percent of the girls and tight 20 percent of the boys surveyed claim they are more common sad and depressed. “Only a fraction of them end up with depression that needs treatment,” says Di Gallo, reassuringly. Around three percent of children and five percent of young people, around one person per class, suffer from it. The fatal: Symptoms often go undetected - especially when they coincide with the onset of puberty. Parents then find it difficult to tell whether the offspring is locking the room door because - as in this age completely healthy - they are separating themselves from them or because they are seriously ill.

Is it just pubertal mood swings?

"Occasional zero-minded moods and fluctuating self-esteem during puberty are completely normal," says Di Gallo. At the same time, this phase of life is a time in which frequent mental disorders developed. "Negative thoughts about yourself," says Di Gallo, "can be a building block in the development of depression." A study by the University of Zurich has shown that Adolescents react particularly quickly to negative feedback. That could explain why teenagers take everything so much to heart.

During puberty, the brain resembles a large construction site.

Such negative sensations fall on particularly fertile ground during puberty. Now the brain resembles a major construction site: Unimportant nerve connections are cut, important ones expanded. Not all parts of the brain develop at the same speed. The limbic system and amygdala - both brain structures that encode reward and emotions - thrive faster than the frontal lobe. This in turn has a controlling function, so it reminds us of order and reminds us of rules.

The ultimate kick

This imbalance makes adolescents vulnerable to risky behavior. Youngsters race around on the moped, try drugs, get drunk and change their sexual partners - always looking for the ultimate kick. "The threshold at which a stimulus creates the feeling of reward is higher in adolescence than in adulthood", explains the 55-year-old expert. "Adolescence is like a car with a lot of horsepower that young people can start but not yet safely drive."

What are the symptoms

For Boys developments like Jakob's are typical. you break the rules in school and in public, risk more in sports or in traffic. Girls, on the other hand, are more likely to injure themselves and tend to eating disorder. Psychiatrists and psychologists have clearly outlined the criteria for depression. "If adolescents withdraw for at least two weeks at a stretch from friends, school, family, neglect their leisure activities and are unusually depressed, one must assume a depressive phase", says expert Di Gallo. Unlike their peers, they would then no longer get out of bed, refuse school and break off contact with friends.

Depression is primarily diagnosed based on symptoms.

Nevertheless, the diagnosis is not always easy: "There are no clear laboratory values ​​or signs of the brain in the magnetic resonance", explains clinic director Di Gallo. Depression is primarily diagnosed based on symptoms. In addition to the severity of the symptoms, the decisive factor is the time factor: The feeling of emptiness just doesn't go away.

Who is particularly at risk?

Research shows that children who live in difficult social conditions growing up are at risk for mental illness. Also one genetic predisposition plays a role. If one parent is depressed, the child's risk of falling ill increases to 20 percent; if both parents are affected, it increases to 50 percent. "The genetic predisposition is not solely responsible for the development of depression," explains Di Gallo. In addition to the internal factors, external factors must be added. One of the most common reasons is parental separation. At a time when emotions are on a roller coaster stable relationships just particularly important. Jakob would also have needed his father - to deal with him as an adolescent and to identify with him as a man.

Even during pregnancy, fetuses are under the influence of stress hormones.

Researchers now understand better and better that experiences in infancy and early childhood can trigger depressive crises in adolescence. "Traumatic breakups or neglect in early childhood can have lasting effects on development", confirms Di Gallo.

Sometimes the triggers go back even further. Even during pregnancy, fetuses are under the influence of the placenta maternal stress hormones like cortisol. Prenatal stress permanently increases the stress hormone level in the unborn child and accelerates brain maturation, found out neurologists at Jena University Hospital. Stress during pregnancy is therefore a risk factor for later depression.

Are young people more often more depressed than they were ten years ago?

Expert Di Gallo is skeptical. Today depression is more in the spotlight more socially acceptable become and would therefore diagnosed more oftensays the child psychiatrist. "Times are no worse than they used to be, but the challenges facing young people have changed." Most children and adolescents are willing to perform. However, some struggle to live up to their own standards and feel stressed by it.