Overview of Mood Disorders in Teens
What are mood disorders?
Mood disorders are a group of mental health problems that includes all types of depression and bipolar disorder. Mood disorders are sometimes called affective disorders.
During the 1980s, mental health experts began to recognize symptoms of mood disorders in teens, as well as adults. However, teens do not always have or show the same symptoms as adults. It is harder to diagnose mood disorders in teens, often because they are not always able to say how they feel. Today, mental health experts believe that mood disorders in teens are one of the most underdiagnosed mental health problems. Mood disorders also put teens at risk for other conditions that may last long after the first episodes of depression are resolved. These other conditions include anxiety disorder, disruptive behavior, and substance abuse disorders.
Types of mood disorders
The following are the most common types of mood disorders in teens:
Major depression. A period of a depressed or irritable mood, or a noticeable decrease in interest or pleasure in usual activities, along with other signs, lasting at least 2 weeks.
Persistent depressive disorder (dysthymia). A long-lasting (chronic), low-grade, depressed or irritable mood for at least 1 year.
Bipolar disorder. Manic episodes (period of persistently elevated mood), mixed with depressed periods, or periods of flat or dulled emotional response.
Disruptive mood dysregulation disorder. An ongoing irritability and extreme inability to control behavior. This is seen in children younger than age 18.
Premenstrual dysmorphic disorder. This includes depressive symptoms, irritability, and tension before a menstrual period.
Mood disorder due to a general medical condition. Many medical conditions can trigger symptoms of depression. These include cancer, injuries, infections, and chronic medical illnesses.
Substance-induced mood disorder. Depression symptoms that are due to the effects of medicine or other forms of treatment, drug abuse, or exposure to toxins.
What causes mood disorders?
What causes mood disorders in teens is not well known. There are chemicals in the brain that are responsible for positive moods. Other chemicals in the brain (neurotransmitters) control the brain chemicals that affect mood. Mood disorders may be caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain. This can happen on its own or along with environmental factors, such as unexpected life events or long-lasting (chronic) stress.
Mood disorders can run in families. It is believed that many factors are involved. The factors that produce the trait or condition are usually both inherited (genetic) and environmental. They involve a mix of genes from both parents. If a mother passes a mood disorder trait to her children, a daughter is more likely to have the disorder. If a father passes a mood disorder trait to his children, a son is more likely to have the disorder.
Who is at risk for mood disorders?
Anyone can feel sad or depressed at times. But mood disorders are more intense and harder to manage than normal feelings of sadness.
Children or teens who have a parent or other relative with a mood disorder have a greater chance of also having a mood disorder. It is not definite that this will happen. But difficult life events and stress can expose or exaggerate feelings of sadness or depression. This makes the feelings harder to manage.
Sometimes life's problems can trigger depression. Difficult situations for a teen include:
A parent losing a job
Parents getting divorced
A death in the family
Family having money problems
It can be hard for a teen to cope with these situations. These stressful life events can bring on feelings of sadness or depression, or make a mood disorder harder to manage. It depends on your teen’s coping skills and his or her ability to recover from difficult times.
What are the symptoms of mood disorders?
Teens may show different symptoms of depression. It depends on their age and the type of mood disorder. The following are the most common symptoms of a mood disorder. But each teen’s symptoms may vary. Symptoms may include:
Ongoing feelings of sadness
Feeling hopeless or helpless
Having low self-esteem
Feelings of wanting to die
Loss of interest in usual activities or activities once enjoyed
Trouble with relationships
Sleep problems (for example, insomnia, or hypersomnia)
Changes in appetite or weight
A decrease in the ability to make decisions
Suicidal thoughts or attempts
Frequent physical complaints (for example, headache, stomachache, or fatigue)
Running away or making threats of running away from home
Being overly sensitive to failure or rejection
Irritability, hostility, aggression
In mood disorders, these feelings appear more intense than teens normally feel from time to time. It is also of concern if these feelings last over a period of time, or if they interfere with a teen’s interest in being with friends or taking part in daily activities at home or school. Note: Any teen who expresses thoughts of suicide should be evaluated immediately.
Other signs of possible mood disorders in teens may include:
Not doing well in school
Trouble with family
Trouble with friends and peers
The symptoms of mood disorders may seem like other conditions or psychiatric problems. Always see your teen’s healthcare provider for a diagnosis.
How are mood disorders diagnosed?
Mood disorders are real medical conditions. They are not something a teen will likely just "get over."
A child psychiatrist or other mental health professional usually diagnoses mood disorders after a full psychiatric evaluation. A family evaluation and information from teachers and care providers may also be helpful in making a diagnosis.
How are mood disorders treated?
Your teen’s healthcare provider will figure out the best treatment plan for your teen based on:
Your teen’s age, overall health, and medical history
Extent of your teen’s symptoms
The type of mood disorder
How well your teen handles certain medicines, treatments, or therapies
If your teen’s condition is expected to get worse
The opinion of the healthcare providers involved in your teen’s care
Your opinion or preference
Mood disorders can often be effectively treated. Treatment should always be based on a full evaluation of the teen and family. Treatment may include 1 or more of the following:
Medicines, especially when combined with psychotherapy, can be very effective in treating mood disorders in teens.
Psychotherapy, most often cognitive-behavioral or interpersonal therapy. The focus is on changing a teen’s distorted views of himself and his environment, working through difficult relationships, and identifying stressors in the teen’s environment and how to avoid them.
Consultation with the teen’s school
Parents play a vital supportive role in any treatment process.
What can be done to prevent mood disorders?
Experts don’t know of any preventive measures to reduce mood disorders in teens. But early detection and intervention are important. They can reduce the severity of symptoms, enhance the teen’s normal growth and development, and improve the quality of life for teens with mood disorders.