Depression, disability and chronic conditions: what to expect
Emotional ups and downs are typical for teenagers. But depression is much more than just feeling down – it’s a serious mental health disorder.
Teenagers with disability or chronic conditions are more likely to experience depression than their peers because their conditions can get in the way of everyday life, make them feel different and stop them from doing the things their peers are doing.
Signs and symptoms of depression in teenagers with disability or chronic conditions
Signs of depression in teenagers with disability or chronic conditions are similar to depression signs in other teenagers. But it can be harder to spot the signs of depression in teenagers with disability if the signs overlap with physical symptoms of disability or chronic conditions, like low energy and changes in eating or sleeping habits.
If your child with disability or a chronic condition has depression, they might:
- say they feel worthless, helpless or hopeless, or say things like ‘Nothing will ever improve’ or ‘I can’t do anything’
- refuse to do treatments like physiotherapy exercises or take medicines, or say things like ‘What’s the point?’ or ‘It won’t help’
- say they’re not good enough because of their disability or condition
- seem withdrawn or not want to do activities they used to enjoy
- get agitated, particularly if they’re non-verbal
- be rude to people, including their medical professionals.
Professional help for teenagers with depression and disability or chronic conditions
If left untreated, teenage depression can have serious long-term consequences. If you’re worried about your child, it’s important to seek professional help as early as possible.
Most young people won’t seek help themselves, so your child will probably need your help to get professional support. If you’ve tried to talk with your child about your concerns, but they’ve refused help or said there’s nothing wrong, you might need to seek help by yourself to start with.
There are many people and places you can go to for help with teenage depression:
- your GP – keep in mind that sometimes teenagers are more comfortable talking to a GP who doesn’t also see their parents, a younger doctor or a doctor of the same gender
- other professionals who work with your child
- a school counsellor
- a psychologist or counsellor
- your local community health centre
- local mental health services.
If your child tells you they’re having thoughts about hurting themselves or that they want to die, seek urgent professional help. Call Lifeline on 131 114, or go to your GP, a mental health service or a hospital emergency department. People who are depressed are at increased risk of suicide.
Teenagers with depression and disability or chronic conditions: things to try at home
If your child has depression, they might feel upset or frustrated that they have another diagnosis and treatment plan to deal with. It’s important to reassure your child that depression is manageable and that you’ll be there to support them.
There are many practical things you can do to support teenagers with depression, including teenagers with disability or a chronic condition through depression.
There are also some extra things you can do to help your child with disability or a chronic condition.
Relationships and feelings
- Help your child develop a plan for keeping up with schoolwork and friends when they’re away for treatments.
- Encourage your child to tell trusted peers and teachers about their disability or condition. This can strengthen your child’s friendships and relationships and help them feel supported. Your child can choose who to tell.
- Help your child think beyond their health. What are they good at? Where can they succeed? What interests them?
- Help your child find a peer network for teenagers with disability or chronic conditions. This could be a face-to-face or online group.
- Encourage your child to use the education support that some children’s hospitals provide. This can be a way for your child to build new friendships.
- Support your child’s friendships and activities and help them find ways to make and maintain new friendships. You could encourage your child to invite friends to your home, particularly if they feel uncomfortable leaving home.
- Let your child’s know it’s OK to feel frustrated or angry – for example, because they experience things their peers don’t have to put up with. Encourage your child to be kind to themselves when they feel this way.
- Help your child learn how to manage their emotions.
Physical health and wellbeing
- Look for ways that your child can be independent. For example, your child might be able to choose foods within a given diet or decide on the health professionals they feel most comfortable seeing.
- Help your child identify useful and accurate online health information.
- Make sure your child has all the information they need to understand their health condition.
- Encourage your child to get involved in appropriate physical activities.
- Be consistent in the way you use family rules and consequences with all your children
- Teach your child how to keep their health needs organised – for example, by keeping a diary of appointments, filing information and keeping medication well organised.
- Arrange family and one-on-one time with your child that’s not focused on their disability or condition.
- Find positive role models for your child. For example, talk about celebrities or other well-known people with similar conditions.
- Help your child to think about their long-term goals – for example, whether they want to go to university, what sort of jobs are they’re interested in and so on.
Strong parent-teenager relationships are important for young people’s mental health. A sense of belonging to family and friends can help protect teenagers from mental health problems like depression. Your support can have a direct and positive influence on your child’s mental and physical health.
Looking after yourself
It’s important to look after yourself. If you’re meeting your own needs, you’ll be better able to meet your child’s needs.
It might help to:
- contact a support program for parents of children with disability or chronic conditions
- talk to your GP
- look into respite care so you can have a break.