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 condition can get in the way of everyday life and might 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. This is because many depression 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, he might also:
- say he feels worthless, helpless or hopeless because of his condition. He might say things like ‘Nothing will ever improve, or ‘I can’t do anything’
- refuse to do treatments like physiotherapy exercises or not take medication. He might say things like ‘What’s the point?’
- say he’s not good enough because of his disability or condition
- be withdrawn or not want to do activities that he used to enjoy
- get agitated, particularly if he’s non-verbal.
Our article on teenage depression takes you through general signs and symptoms of depression. It also explains practical ways to help teenagers with depression.
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 to your child about your concerns, but she’s 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 children 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
- school counsellors
- psychologists and counsellors
- your local community health centre
- local mental health services.
If your child tells you he’s having thoughts about hurting himself or that he wants 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, she might feel upset or frustrated that she has another diagnosis and treatment plan to deal with. So it’s important to talk with your child and reassure your child that depression is manageable.
There are many practical things you can do to support your teenage child with disability or a chronic condition through depression. Many of these are the same things you’d do for any child with depression.
There are 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 he’s away for treatments.
- Encourage your child to tell trusted peers and teachers about her disability or condition. This can strengthen your child’s friendships and relationships, and help her feel supported. She can choose who she tells.
- Help your child think beyond his health. What is he good at? Where can he succeed?
- Help your child find a peer network for teenagers with disability or chronic conditions. This could be a face-to-face group or online.
- 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 her find ways to make and maintain new relationships. You could encourage her to invite friends to your home.
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 the health professionals he feels most comfortable seeing.
- Help your child identify useful and accurate online health information.
- Be consistent in the way you use family rules and consequences with all your children.
- Teach your child how to keep her 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 his disability or condition.
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
Caring for a child with depression can be stressful. It can also affect the whole family. If you look after yourself, you’ll be better able to look after your child.
You might find it helpful to:
- contact a support program for parents of children with disability or chronic conditions
- talk to your GP
- make use of respite care to have a break.