understanding depression - for friends & family

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Depression is one of the most common health issues for young people in Australia.

Many young people have occasional mood swings or experience times of irritability. If your young person seems sad or irritable most of the time, and this has gone on for a while and is stopping them from doing things that they used to enjoy, they may be experiencing depression.

What is depression?

Depression is one of the most common health issues for young people in Australia.

Depression is the term used when feelings of sadness, depression and irritability have lasted longer than two weeks, affect most parts of daily life and stop people from taking part in activities that used to be enjoyable.

There is no simple answer for why people develop depression. For most people, it is a combination of events or issues that end up impacting on their feelings, thoughts and behaviours.

What are the signs of depression?

A young person may be experiencing depression if, for more than two weeks, they've experienced some of the following changes:  

  • Changes in emotions:

    • appearing down, moody or irritable – for example being short-tempered or more sensitive to criticism than usual

    • tearfulness or frequent crying

    • tiredness, lack of energy and motivation

    • seeming worried or tense.

  • Changes in thinking:

    • difficulty concentrating and making decisions, or remembering things

    • expressions of worthlessness and guilt, such as being self-critical and self-blaming

    • negative body image and low self-esteem

    • having dark and gloomy thoughts, including thoughts of death or suicide.

  • Changes in behaviours:

    • no longer engaging in activities they used to enjoy, or doing so with less enthusiasm

    • less attention to personal hygiene and appearance

    • avoidance of peers and family interactions and more time spent alone

    • self harm behaviours.

  • Physical changes:

    • loss of appetite and weight (but sometimes people 'comfort eat' and put on weight)

    • trouble sleeping or over-sleeping and staying in bed most of the day

    • restlessness, agitation or being ‘slowed down’

    • unexplained aches and pains, such as headaches or stomach pains. 

Many young people experience some of these symptoms in response to stressful life events. What makes the experience of depression different is that the symptoms are more severe, happen more frequently and they tend to persist over time.

Common depression problems

There are two main types of depression that are considered to be disorders:

  1. Major depression – this is the condition that most people are familiar with. Major depression is usually experienced in ‘episodes’, with symptoms of depression building up over a period of a few weeks or more. It involves low mood and loss of interest and enjoyment in usual activities, in addition to other symptoms.  A person experiencing major depression may be unable to complete their school work or go to work and may even have difficulty getting out of bed.

  2. Mild depression (dysthymia) – this is often described as a ‘milder’ version of depression compared to major depression. There are usually less symptoms but they tend to go on for much longer, sometimes for many months. A person experiencing mild depression can often do their daily activities but it takes more effort and it’s less enjoyable.

  • Let them know your concerns: If you suspect a young person may be experiencing a tough time, it is important to let them know that you are aware of the changes you have noticed in them. Let them know that you are concerned and give them the opportunity to talk to you about it.

  • Listen to them: Take the time to listen to them and to understand their experiences. Check that you have understood them by asking questions.

  • Offer support: While it can feel tempting to want to ‘fix things’, try not to jump into ‘problem-solving mode’ straight away. Let your young person know that they don't have to go through things on their own and that you are there to help and support them.

  • Practise patience: If the young person denies there is a problem, try to be patient. Some people need time or space before they feel ready to accept help. Be honest about why you are worried and tell them that you care for them. If they are not ready to talk, let them know you’d like to check in again soon if you're still concerned. Ensure the young person knows you love and care for them and that they can speak to you anytime about how they’re feeling (it’s always helpful to remind people you love them).

  • Learn more: Learning more about depression will help you to understanding what your young person is going though and how you can help you to support them.

There are some things that you can encourage your young person to do to help manage their experience of depression.

  • Self-care: It's important to encourage self-care activities like eating well, exercising, getting enough sleep and avoiding alcohol and other drugs.  You could suggest that they try some of our tips to improve how you feel.

  • Connecting with others: Encourage your young person to maintain contact with other people – such as friends, a teacher or coach. Spending time with their mob or Elders and reconnecting with country can also be helpful.

  • Participating in activities they enjoy: Encourage your young person to try enjoyable or relaxing activities – this can help boost their mood and help them to feel like they’ve achieved something rewarding.   

Remember, it can feel hard for a young person experiencing anxiety to find the energy or motivation to do these things. Encourage them to start with one thing they know they can do, then slowly add things in step by step. This can help them feel like they’re making good progress.

If your young person doesn’t seem to be improving over time, or if things seem to be getting worse, encourage them to seek professional help. You could support them to visit their local doctor or their nearest headspace centre, or contact eheadspace for online and phone support. If they are attending school or university, they may also be able to access a student counselling or wellbeing service.

An important part of professional support is often psychological therapy. This might involve helping the young person to understand their experiences of depression and to change unhelpful thinking and behaviour patterns. Antidepressant medications can also be added if they are needed.

The good news is that most young people experiencing depression respond well to treatment. While some days may not be as good as others, with support your young person can get back to enjoying life again. Remember, getting support and treatment early can make a big difference when dealing with depression, and help to prevent further episodes of depression in future.

Some young people who experience depression may harm themselves or experience suicidal thoughts. For many young people, self harm behaviours and thoughts about suicide are ways of coping with difficult emotions.

If you are concerned that a young person is engaging in self harm or is experiencing suicidal thoughts, encourage them to seek help from a professional. If they have hurt themselves, you take them to a doctor, your local hospital or call 000.

Supporting a young person experiencing depression can be challenging. It is important that you take care of yourself, while being a supportive carer.  Being at your best means that you can offer greater patience and a more considered approach as to how you can help others.

Ensure that you take care of your own physical and mental health by getting good sleep, doing regular exercise, having a healthy diet, limiting alcohol consumption and keeping up enjoyable and relaxing activities. Looking after yourself in these ways will also encourage your young person to do the same.

Remember, professional support is available for both you and your young person. For more advice and guidance on how you can best support your young person, visit the websites below or contact eheadspace and talk to one of our family and friends specialists.

Other useful websites

Beyond Blue


SANE Australia


Parent helplines (in every State and Territory of Australia) – Google ‘Parentline’ along with your State or Territory

The headspace Clinical Reference Group oversee and approve clinical resources made available on this website.

Last reviewed 26 June 2017



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