Depressed Teens Reluctant To Seek Help: What Can Parents Do?

DepressedA study to be published in the June issue of Medical Care suggests that teens perceive obstacles to treatment that could make them reluctant to obtain professional help. Dr. Lisa Meredith and her colleagues contend that teen depression is a serious problem, one that has a social and academic as well as an emotional impact; they report that 15-20% of adolescents experience a clinical depression by the age of 18. Although effective treatments exist, the researchers noted that there is often a delay of multiple years before teens seek help. Meredith and her colleagues asked depressed and nondepressed teens about their help-seeking behaviour and factors that they see as barriers to obtaining treatment. They found that less than a third of the teens (29%) accessed regular treatment in the 6 months following the identification of their depression. Although all teens perceived a number of obstacles to receiving help, depressed teens reported more barriers than their nondepressed peers. The most commonly endorsed barriers involved difficulties with scheduling appointments; responsibilities at school, extracurricular activities, having to babysit younger siblings, and difficulties getting time off work were the most commonly reported obstacles. Some teens said that the hours of therapists' availability or the difficulty of obtaining transportation were also issues.

These results are unsettling, given the relatively high rates of depression among young people. However, this report comes soon after the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommended that physicians routinely screen teen patients for depression; it's possible that such routine screening could reduce the stigma associated with depression and its treatment. Clearly, though, access to treatment is an issue, at least in the eyes of depressed teens. In some school districts, treatment is provided by psychologists, social workers or other counsellors within the schools - this could obviously reduce difficulties associated with getting to appointments. This isn't always possible though. Here are a few suggestions for parents and teens to reduce the barriers to treatment:

  1. Advocate! Many schools will reduce students' workloads to allow them to receive treatment. This might be worth a discussion with the school guidance counsellor. Adjusting the workload could reduce stress (which might have a positive impact on symptoms) as well as provide more opportunities for the scheduling of appointments.
  2. Take a look at your teen's schedule. Since extracurricular activities might be a bright spot in the teen's day, look for other areas when appointments could be made. Some therapists might be willing to meet with their patients every second week, making scheduling easier. If babysitting siblings is getting in the way, making other care arrangements for a few hours per month might be worth the effort!
  3. Talking can help. We've said it before, but talking therapy can be an effective treatment for depression. If your teen is unwilling to seek help, parents can meet with a family therapist to discuss the best way to help their child cope.

You can read the Medical Care study here.

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Note: Posts on Family Anatomy are for information only. If you need to talk to someone about family or mental health issues, you can get a referral from your family doctor.