Healthy Living

Get Your Teen Screened for Depression

Teenage boy sitting on the ground with his head in his hand

The Basics

Overview

If your child is between ages 12 and 18, ask the doctor about screening (testing) for depression — even if you don’t see signs of a problem.

Why do I need to get my teen screened for depression?

Depression can be serious, and many teens with depression don’t get the help they need.

The good news is that depression can be treated with counseling, medicine, or a combination of both. When you ask your child's doctor about screening for depression, find out what services are available in case your teen needs follow-up care.

What Is Depression?

What is depression?

Depression is an illness that involves the brain. It can affect your thoughts, mood, and daily activities — and make you feel sad or down. But depression is more than feeling sad for a few days.

Teen depression can be a serious mental illness. If you child is depressed, they may:

  • Feel sad or irritable (easily upset) most of the time 
  • Lose interest in activities they used to enjoy
  • Have aches and pains for no clear reason
  • Have trouble concentrating, remembering things, or making decisions
  • Sleep too much or be unable to sleep
  • Eat too much or have trouble eating
  • Use drugs or alcohol
  • Think about death or suicide

It’s normal for teens to have mood swings, and it can be hard to tell if your child is feeling down or if they’re depressed. That’s why it’s so important for all teens to be screened for depression.

Learn more about depression in teens by checking out:

Causes

What causes depression?

Depression can happen to anyone. It’s not your fault or your teen’s fault. Some experiences may make it more likely that a teen will develop depression, like:

  • Dealing with a big loss, like a death or divorce in the family
  • Living with someone who's depressed
  • Having another mental health problem, like anxiety or an eating disorder
  • Feeling stressed at school or at home
  • Having a family history of depression

Keep in mind that teen girls are more likely to get depressed than teen boys.

What to Expect

What happens during a depression screening?

The doctor will ask your teen questions about their feelings and behaviors. This may include asking how often your teen:

  • Feels hopeless or sad
  • Has low energy or feels tired during the day
  • Has trouble paying attention at school
  • Eats too much or has trouble eating

Screening for depression usually takes about 5 minutes. It can be part of your teen’s yearly checkup.

Treatment

What if the doctor finds signs of depression?

If your child is showing signs of depression, the doctor will:

  • Refer your teen to a therapist or doctor with special training in helping young people with emotional or behavioral problems
  • Talk about medicines or other treatments — like talk therapy — that could help your teen manage their depression
  • Order tests to check for other health problems

Make sure to include your teen when you make any decisions about treatment.

Take Action

See a Doctor

Take steps to protect your teen’s mental health.

Talk to your teen’s doctor about depression screening.

Ask the doctor to screen your child for depression. If you’re worried about your teen, be sure to let the doctor know. Find out what services are available in case your teen needs treatment.

What about cost?

Under the Affordable Care Act, insurance plans must cover depression screening for teens. Depending on your insurance plan, you may be able to get your child screened at no cost to you. Check with your insurance company to find out more.

Your teen may also qualify for free or low-cost health insurance through Medicaid or the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP). Learn more about coverage options for your family.

If you don't have insurance, you may still be able to get free or low-cost depression screening. Find a health center near you and ask about depression screening.

To learn more, check out these resources:

Look for Changes

Write down any concerns you have.

Keep track of your teen’s actions and words that make you think they might be depressed. If you see a change in your child’s behavior, make a note about the change and when it happened. Include details like:

  • How long the behavior's been going on
  • How often the behavior happens
  • How serious you think it is

Share these notes with your teen’s doctor. You can also use them to start a conversation with your child.

Suicide Warning Signs

Watch for signs that your teen may be thinking about suicide.

Most people who are depressed don’t attempt suicide, but depression can increase the risk of suicide and suicide attempts. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for people ages 10 to 34.

These behaviors may be signs that your teen is thinking about suicide:

  • Talking about wanting to kill or hurt themselves
  • Taking risks, like driving recklessly
  • Spending less time with friends and family
  • Talking about not being around in the future or “going away”
  • Giving away prized possessions
  • Increasing the use of alcohol or drugs
  • Talking about feeling hopeless or very angry

If your child is showing some or all of these warning signs, get help right away. Visit the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or call 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255) to learn how to help.

If you think your child may be in immediate danger, call 911 or take them to the emergency room.

Support Your Teen

Find resources for your teen.

If your child isn’t ready to talk to you about their feelings, there are still things you can do. Help your teen find resources online and in the community.

Share these resources with your teen:

Let your child know that they can get support anonymously (without giving their name) by:

Make a list with your teen of other people they can go to with problems or questions — like a teacher, guidance counselor, or another trusted adult.

Remind your teen that you're always there if they want to talk.

Content last updated May 9, 2022

Reviewer Information

This information on screening adolescents for depression is adapted from materials from the National Institute of Mental Health and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Reviewed by:
Natalie Zeigler
National Institute of Mental Health
National Institutes of Health