From the Outlook Desk

Nathan Johnson

Depression is not a phase

We often play depression off as a joke in society and in high school. We don’t see or recognize what can really happen to students who are genuinely depressed. Depression is not a phase; it is a major mental health condition that is becoming more and more common among adolescents.

Many things cause depression, but there are three major factors that contribute to adolescent depression: stress, sleep deprivation and adolescent development (ages 10-19). There are contributing minor factors, like diet and physical activity, but many of these are easily preventable and easily fixable.

Every student is in a different stage of adolescent development, causing each student to deal with stressors differently.

Peninsula High School counselor Allison Hughes said it’s important to recognize that everyone deals with stress differently. “If you and I were given the same stressors,” she said, “I would maybe crack sooner than you would, but you could handle things that I couldn’t.”

Stress is not something to joke around about. Not only does that increase the chance of depression, it can cause external problems. Some examples include: weight issues, heart disease, digestive problems and skin conditions.

Jeanne Segal, a psychologist who writes for on how the body deals with psychological problems such as stress, said, “The body’s nervous system often does a poor job of distinguishing between daily stressors and life-threatening events.”

The human body, though a beautiful instrument, is an unfinished product. The body has its flaws and, in the case of depression, it does not distinguish between worrying about an important test and being thrown into a life-or-death situation.

Insufficient sleep is another of the three major factors contributing to adolescent depression. Most teens sleep an average of six hours a night. It’s been proven that teens need at least nine hours of sleep a night for healthy development.

Lack of sleep may come from an increase in technology usage (screen time), increased homework load and the early start times of school. Whatever the cause, sleep deprivation is a serious problem.

Dr. Jonathan Pletcher, an adolescent medicine specialist at the Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh, and an expert in the mental and physical effects of sleep deprivation, said, “A lack of sleep can increase depression, negative physical health like headaches, poor school performance, school absenteeism and drowsy driving.”

Sleep deprivation and stress often work together to cause adolescents—or anyone—to spiral out of control and lose themselves in depression.

The final and often overlooked factor that is a major player in depression is adolescent development. Lots of people understand that adolescents are in a time of foundational development physically and emotionally, but they don’t realize this decreases the immunity to mental health problems such as depression because of the fluctuating activity in the adolescent brain during maturation.

Anita Thapar, a professor at the National Center for Biotechnical Information who researches neurological development and mental health conditions, said, “One circuit connects the amygdala to the hippocampus and ventral expanses of the prefrontal cortex and is linked to hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis activity. Activity in this circuit consistently seems raised in patients with major depression.”

Sex hormones, genetic factors, physical development and stress all play a role in the changing activities of this and many other neural connections.

The chance for developing depression is significantly higher in adolescents than adults. We need to shift our view and get a better understanding of it. Only then can we begin to change and build a society based on helping depressed students and not brushing them off as if they have a minor issue, like a cold. If you or someone you know seems unusually unhappy, withdrawn or is exhibiting self-destructive behaviors, your high school counselor is a good first stop for help.

Nathan Johnson is a senior reporter for the Peninsula Outlook. Read more of his work and that of his colleagues at