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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

  • Feeling inadequate

  • Excessive guilt

  • 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

  • Decreased energy

  • Trouble focusing

  • 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

  • Constant anger

  • Rebellious behaviors

  • 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 themself and their environment, working through difficult relationships, and identifying stressors in the teen’s environment and how to avoid them.

  • Family therapy

  • 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.

Key points about mood disorders in teens

  • Mood disorders are a group of mental health problems that includes all types of depression and bipolar disorder.

  • Mood disorders put teens at risk for other conditions such as anxiety disorder, disruptive behavior, and substance abuse disorders.

  • Mood disorders may be caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain. Difficult life events or chronic stress may also trigger depression.

  • Mood disorders are real medical conditions. They are not something a teen will likely just "get over."

  • Medicines, especially when combined with psychotherapy, can be a very effective treatment.

Next steps

Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your child’s healthcare provider:

  • Know the reason for the visit and what you want to happen.

  • Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.

  • At the visit, write down the name of a new diagnosis, and any new medicines, treatments, or tests. Also write down any new instructions your provider gives you for your child.

  • Know why a new medicine or treatment is prescribed and how it will help your child. Also know what the side effects are.

  • Ask if your child’s condition can be treated in other ways.

  • Know why a test or procedure is recommended and what the results could mean.

  • Know what to expect if your child does not take the medicine or have the test or procedure.

  • If your child has a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.

  • Know how you can contact your child’s provider after office hours. This is important if your child becomes ill and you have questions or need advice.

Online Medical Reviewer: Ballas, Paul, DO
Online Medical Reviewer: Nelson, Gail A., MS, APRN, BC
Date Last Reviewed: 10/1/2016
© 2000-2016 The StayWell Company, LLC. 780 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.
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