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Is it Teen Grief or Depression?

More than a few times I’ve seen clients come in for therapy unsure if what they are suffering is teen grief or depression. It is reasonable to be confused by this because they can feel very similar. When your teenager loses someone close, life turns upside down. When this happens, teens feel as if life loses its meaning. Likewise, depression takes away clarity about the meaning of life. Because of this confusion, depression and grief can be hard to differentiate.

A teen girl sitting on a couch trying dealing with grief
Sometimes adolescent grief becomes depression.

Can it be Both Depression and Grief?

The short answer is, yes, sometimes. If your teenager was already depressed, grief can layer on top. However, if the depression wasn’t present before the loss, we don’t diagnose depression while an adolescent is bereaved. For the first two months after a major loss, therapists and psychiatrists do not typically diagnose Major Depressive Disorder. The timing of depression is one of the ways clinicians differentiate between depression and grief in teens (and all people actually).

What is a “Typical” Progression of Grief?

After one to three months, most teens feel their grief shift. While the loss is forever life-altering, teenagers tend to establish their new normal. They began to laugh again. They start to reengage with friendships. If they are coping with the death of a parent, they start to align closely with the other parent or guardian. Of course, there are still times when grief floods over them until they feel debilitating sorrow, but these instances became less and less frequent.

Please don’t read this and start thinking, “Oh no! There’s something wrong with the way my teen is grieving,” if their process doesn’t match this blog post. Every single person is different. So, while I can tell you what happens with a lot of teen grief scenarios, it doesn’t necessarily mean depression if your teenager is different.

Which is Which?

For some teenagers, the initial grief never lets up. They continue to walk through life feeling nearly numb after the death of the loved one. One teenager I saw wasn’t engaging in any part of life a full year after she lost her dad. She barely got out of bed, combed her hair, or completed any schoolwork. At this point, the grief had crossed into Major Depressive Disorder. The grief triggered the depression episode as she had been a well-adjusted teen before his death. However, she could not shake the brain fog, heart-wrenching crying spells, and confusion that came over her within hours of his death.

In this client’s case, her bereavement had become so complicated that she fit the criteria for Major Depressive Disorder. This is partially because of how long she was in this state. Without treatment for adolescent depression versus treatment for only grief, she may have continued to languish.

What is the Difference Between Teenage Grief and Depression?

Grief and depression feel similar. They both involve pervasive feelings of sadness. They both can suppress the body’s energy. Both grief and loss take away interest in activities that are normally enjoyable. They both create a sense of hopelessness and exhaustion. In contrast, grief tends to let up with time. As one priest put it, “Grief is love with no place to go.” Depression is a shutting down of the whole system. As the love slowly finds new people, ways to honor a memory, and is shared with others who also miss the deceased, active grief becomes integrated. Depression can’t do this. Depression is lonely. It tends to be an absence of joy.

What Can I Do?

Talk to your teen. Find out what they are thinking and feeling as best you can. Ask if they would like to talk with someone. Find out if they feel stuck. And, if you feel stuck in how to help them, please feel free to call. Even if you aren’t sure about beginning counseling right now, at TTOC it’s always a therapist who answers the phone or calls you back. We take a lot of 10-15 minute phone calls where we listen and talk about possible steps even for people who don’t end up booking an appointment. In fact, sometimes we recommend you watch and wait before deciding on therapy. In the case of teen grief versus teen depression, this very well could be the recommendation. We are just happy to support you wherever you are in your process.

Helping teens grow and families improve connection,
Lauren Goodman, MS, MFT