When you hear the word depression, one often associates it with a terrible mental ailment that no cure seems to avail. According to the UK’s National Health Service (NHS), “depression is more than simply feeling unhappy or fed up for a few days”. Some people often think that depression is trivial and can be easily brushed off as it is mere “a sign of weakness”. Meanwhile, the World Health Organization (WHO) at the end of February declared depression as the single leading cause of disability worldwide. More than 300 million people suffered from depressive disorders in 2015, indicating an 18.4 percent increase in a decade, as stated in the report released by the United Nations agency.
The symptoms of depression range from mild to severe. They range from lasting feelings of unhappiness and hopelessness to losing interest in the things you used to enjoy and feeling very tearful. Many people with depression also have symptoms of anxiety. At its mildest, people may have feelings of utter sadness or low self-worth and at its worst, depression can lead to suicide. According to estimates by WHO, suicide is the second leading cause of death in 15-29-year-olds, which means that young adults are more susceptible to suicidal thoughts.
The devilish effect of social media
According to a study published in the journal Translational Psychiatry, more than one-third of teenage girls in the U.S. experience the first episode of depression. That number is three times higher than the rate for boys. There are a number of factors that make girls more prone to depression than their male counterpart. Rebecca Schwartz-Mette, an assistant professor in the department of psychology at the University of Maine, mentions pubertal changes, negative thinking styles such as rumination and low self-esteem as some of the common risk factors.
It’s undoubtedly hard to be a teenager. Puberty kicks in, hormonal changes followed by mood swings loom in, and not to mention the escalating peer pressures and academic expectations. The whole mix of changes can increase stress, anxiety and the risk of depression among all teens, research has long shown. And the increasing dependence on social media also exacerbates the problem. As psychiatrist and author Catherine Steiner-Adair explains, her young female patients often tell her they get their “entire identity” from their phone, constantly checking the number of “tags, likes, Instagram photos and Snapchat stories.”
In an age where information is so easily accessed, the internet community can be a hotbed of hate and jealousy. And with the advent of social media, where people can freely post their thoughts and share their stories, cyber-bullying and online harassment are bound to happen. Social media also allows social interaction between people who may never meet in real life but can be regarded as friends. But the dark side of the internet and social media has been unearthed. A survey by the Royal Society of Public Health in the UK shows that Instagram is ranked as the worst social media platform as it is often associated with high levels of anxiety, depression, bullying, and FOMO, or the “fear of missing out.” The survey, which was conducted among 1,500 14 to 24-year olds also found that Snapchat, Facebook, and Twitter all demonstrated negative effects overall on young people’s mental health.
But there is so much more to that. The more important question to ask is why is depression seemingly more prevalent in girls than boys? Or when a 14-year-old girl rants on her Facebook, does it show a symptom of depression or merely an attention-seeking behavior? Mental health is certainly an issue not to be overlooked. While there’s certainly a connection between social media use and signs of depression, parents need to stay vigilant in interpreting their children’s behaviors. When a child really seems to have changed, you can’t just write it off as adolescence.
Treatments for depression
If diagnosed early, depression can be treated effectively. Unfortunately, there are a number of cases where affected people refuse to seek help because of the social stigma that associates with mental disorders. Again, data from WHO shows that fewer than half of those affected in the world (in many countries, fewer than 10%) receive such treatments. Barriers to effective care include a lack of resources or lack of trained healthcare providers.
People with mild depression sometimes get better without any treatment, but in more severe cases they may need lots of help. Lifestyle changes are usually the first method of treatment to try. Getting more exercise, eating healthily and sleeping well can all have a powerful effect on our moods. However, people with more severe symptoms may also need professional help or receive a residential depression treatment.
Identifying depression does not solve the problem. If symptoms continue to appear, parents should be attentive and more importantly, offer help and listen. The challenge is to overcome the social stigma that often entails depression and other mental health disorders. This can be a long and hard journey for teenagers and their families, but the message to parents is to keep asking the right questions.