Is My Teen Suffering from a Type of Depression: SAD vs Situational Depression?

During the cold, dark months of winter, many teens suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD). An increasing number of young people are also suffering from situational depression right now. As parents and caregivers, how can you know the difference? And how can you find the right treatment for teen depression?

First, it helps to understand these two types of depression. Both have very similar symptoms, although the causes and treatments can be different.

What Is Seasonal Affective Disorder?

SAD is a type of depression that is cyclical and occurs with seasonal changes. It can run in families and is often associated with other mental health disorders. While some people suffer from SAD in the summer months, the most common type involves depression that sets in during the shorter days of winter and ends when spring and longer days begin. The change in the amount of daylight is widely believed to be the primary cause of Seasonal Affective Disorder in most people. That’s because daylight impacts the brain’s production of serotonin, and serotonin levels are directly connected to mood.

Since SAD is a type of depression, the symptoms are similar to those of major depression, yet they are only experienced for four or five months out of the year. SAD is often overlooked when the seasonal changes bring improvement, but it is important to recognize that the depression can worsen from year to year.

Specific symptoms of SAD include:

  • Hypersomnia (sleeping too much)
  • Eating too much (specifically craving carbohydrates)
  • Weight gain
  • Withdrawing socially.

What Is Situational Depression?

By contrast, situational depression is a form of depression that occurs based primarily on environmental influences. Therefore, situational depression in teens has increased exponentially as a result of the COVID pandemic. People who experience situational depression typically do not have a history of prior depression.

Teens may become depressed based on significant events such as:

  • Loss and grief
  • Social or physical isolation
  • Abuse or violence
  • Major lifestyle changes, including positive changes
  • Serious illness
  • Substance abuse

For teens with situational depression, both the body and brain react to the external influence of these events. Unfortunately, this type of depression is more likely to remain or reoccur without treatment. While it seems like this type of depression should be easier to anticipate or recognize, situational depression can sometimes set in months or even years after an event occurred, and therefore is less likely to be recognized as a reaction to outside events.

How Can Parents Tell the Difference?

The best way to know which type of depression a teen has is to seek a diagnosis from a licensed, qualified mental health professional. SAD can only be effectively diagnosed after depression symptoms in teens have occurred for at least two years in a row with similar timing related to seasonal and daylight changes. Hence, parents need to be aware of their teen’s mental health pattern over time.

With situational depression, the environmental influences may be obvious, as with the pandemic, or may not be clear. Thus, it is important that parents and caregivers are aware of what is happening in their teen’s life and are able to step back and observe significant changes in mood or behavior that last for more than a few weeks, particularly in relation to any significant events.

Necessary Treatment for Teen Depression

A mental health professional can recommend a course of action to treat depression once it has been diagnosed. Parents and caregivers can be the most helpful by educating themselves and ensuring that their teen follows the treatment. SAD is often treated with modalities such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, light therapy, and vitamin D. Both light therapy and vitamin D address the changes in serotonin levels that occur when there is less natural daylight.

Treatment for situational depression varies based on the circumstances, but will likely rely more heavily on therapeutic modalities, both experiential and clinical. Addressing the environmental influences as much as possible will help resolve situational depression in teens.

Why Is Treatment So Important?

 In summary, both SAD and situational depression are forms of depression. And when left untreated, depression symptoms in teens can quickly get worse. Because the symptoms of depression interfere with daily life and can lead to suicidality and suicide attempts, it is important for teens to be diagnosed and treated as early as possible to prevent serious consequences. Suicide is the second-leading cause of death for teenagers, behind only unintentional injury. Therefore, parents and caregivers should take depression symptoms in teens seriously and seek treatment for teens at risk of suicide.

For teens struggling with depression, information and education from a therapist or treatment center that specializes in treating teens is essential. Hence, families can receive the support they need to help their teen heal from situational depression or Seasonal Affective Disorder. In conclusion, whatever the cause of your teen’s depression, being proactive about their diagnosis and treatment can be a life-saving decision. If you have any questions, please reach out to Teen Rehab and we can assist in getting your family the help you need.