The survey, done for the New York University Child Study Center, reports that 43 percent of adolescent girls and 28 percent of adolescent boys say they have experienced recent periods of depression lasting at least two weeks.
Approximately 400 teens were interviewed for the survey, which was conducted Dec. 3-6.
Previous studies have indicated that only 19 percent of adolescents experience such periods of depression, says Dr. Harold S. Koplewicz, director of the center. He attributes the high rates found by the survey, in part, to the enforced gaiety of the holiday season.
"The holidays can be a stressful time for all of us," Koplewicz says. "It's possible that the holiday season always does this to children and we haven't known about it until now. There might also be lingering effects of the terrorist destruction of the World Trade Center."
One effect of depression is to increase the likelihood of high-risk behavior, Koplewicz says. "Girls are more likely to have sex, use drugs and drink," he says. "Boys are more likely to drive dangerously and drink."
The holiday effect heightens year-round stresses on young people, says Linda Lebelle, executive director of Focus Adolescent Services, a recently founded advisory service for parents.
"Children get mixed messages these days," she says. "The family says one thing and the world behaves in a different way. The most blatant example is the issue of sexuality and sexual relations. The family says that sex is an expression of love, but the media are not saying that. And the family says not to use drugs, but that is not what they see on television."
A high incidence of youthful depression at this time of the year is unusual, Lebelle says.
"This is not the time of year when you see the most suicides and suicide attempts," she says. "That is usually the spring." However, her organization has been getting a high volume of calls from parents worried their children may be depressed, Lebelle says.
A day or two of depression is normal -- 90 percent of adolescents report experiencing them -- but prolonged depressive behavior requires action.
Parents should be alert for the signs of depression, Koplewicz says.
Warning signs include a prolonged shift in behaviors -- a change in sleeping habits, a change in appetite, social isolation (being alone more than two or three hours a day), and losing interest in the things that usually are of interest, he says.
"Don't wait, don't think it is just a phase," Koplewicz says. "Call an expert in adolescent depression, rather than the family doctor."
Usually this advice goes unheeded, he acknowledges.
The new poll duplicated findings in the 1999 Mental Health Report of the Surgeon General: only one in five children with a psychiatric problem receives treatment.
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