By Jan Hittelman

As reported in a recent Camera article (“Study: Colorado Leader in Teen Depression” March 8, 2008), we have a higher percentage of youth age 12 to 17 reporting symptoms of Major Depression than any other state in the nation. Similarly, while suicide is the third leading cause of death for youth age 15 to 19 nationally, it is the second leading cause of death for this age group in Colorado.

Child and adolescent depression can look quite different than adult depression. More specifically, it can look like irritability and oppositional behavior. The challenge, of course, is what teen doesn’t appear to be irritable and/or oppositional from time to time? This is why diagnosing depression in youth can be challenging and is often missed completely by parents. A 2002 study at Brown University found that even parent who had good communication with their children were often unaware when their child was depressed.

While the disturbing state trends are difficult to explain, the reasons behind the general increase in teen depression may not be as illusive. Local mental health professionals working with adolescents are seeing large numbers of teens suffering from depression as a function of stress from academic, social and family challenges. It is disturbing that for achievement-oriented youth a 4.0 GPA is no longer enough. Social acceptance, always of key importance in adolescence, is even more difficult with documented increases in bullying behavior. Families are under more collective strain, which only intensifies anticipated parent-child conflict normally seen in adolescence.

The good news is that depression is very treatable. Talk therapy, medication, or a combination of the two, has been shown to be highly effective. Family counseling can also be beneficial. Unfortunately, it is estimated that only 30% of adolescents with depression receive treatment. When in doubt, seek the guidance of a trained professional with expertise in diagnosing and treating adolescents. A simple assessment can help determine if there’s a problem and if treatment is needed. It is important that we be proactive.

In an effort to address these issues through education, community engagement, and personal empowerment, the HOPE Coalition of Boulder County ( was launched in 2005. Through HOPE events and Gatekeeper Trainings, this grass roots group is playing a leading role in trying to address these issues in our community.