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Antidepressants for teens: What to know

Antidepressants for teens: What to know

If your teenager is experiencing depression, certain antidepressant medications can help.

Reviewed by:
Caitlin Gardiner, MD
View bio
June 9, 2024
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Key takeaways

  • Antidepressant medications come with the increased risk of suicidal thoughts, but generally they are safe and effective for teenagers to take.
  • Certain SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) and atypical antidepressants are typically prescribed to help alleviate symptoms of depression in teens.
  • It can be helpful to talk to a psychiatrist who specializes in pediatric psychiatry for a detailed treatment plan.
In this article

Parents may feel overwhelmed when their teenagers are facing mental health challenges. Teenage mental health issues are more common than you might think: Roughly 1 in 5 teens report experiencing symptoms of anxiety or depression. That’s why it’s important to know how to support the young adults in your life in getting mental health treatment and learning healthy coping skills.  

In this article, we’ll review which are the safest antidepressants for teenagers, and other ways you can support them during this time.

Understanding teenage depression  

It’s fairly common for young people to experience depression or other mental health conditions at some point during their adolescence, which is why it’s so important for you—as a trusted adult in their life—to provide support and resources when they’re struggling. Teenage depression is a serious matter, as it affects how teens experience day-to-day life. It may lead to behavioral issues, difficulty maintaining friendships, poor performance in school, and even self-harm. Leaving depression untreated may lead to ongoing mental health issues and worse outcomes.  

Let’s back up. It’s important to remember that depression isn’t a reflection on the teen or the adults in the teen’s life. It’s not a sign of weakness, may not have any one single cause, and it’s no one’s fault. In fact, you’re taking an excellent step toward helping them simply by reading this article.  

If you’re concerned about a young adult in your life, keep an eye out for symptoms of depression. These symptoms are more severe and persistent than the normal highs and lows of a teenager’s day-to-day life.  

Symptoms of teen depression  

Here's what depression might feel or look like like:

  • Lack of hope or interest in the future
  • Changes in appetite
  • Changes in performance in school, including declining grades and trouble focusing
  • Feelings of hopelessness and sadness
  • Irritability
  • Isolation
  • Lack of motivation
  • Loss of interest or not wanting to participate in fun activities
  • Low energy levels
  • Low self-esteem or feelings of worthlessness
  • Self-harm or destructive behavior
  • Threatening, talking about, or attempting suicide
  • Use of drugs or alcohol

It's important to note that some children with depression will not seem “sad” at all; they may seem angry, defiant, or experience episodes of “acting out.”

Can adolescents take antidepressants?

The short answer is yes, adolescents can take antidepressants, which can be quite effectivebut they may come with more risks than for adults. All prescription antidepressants come with a black box warning that these medications may increase suicidal thoughts and behavior in people under 25 years of age. This warning comes from clinical trials that showed that a small number of children and teens taking antidepressants experienced higher rates of suicidal ideation. If you have a teenager experiencing severe depression, taking certain safety planning measure at home can be helpful, like removing firearms and using a lockbox for medication

Although antidepressants are effective for many, it’s important to consider the warnings and explore whether depression medication for teens is the right path for your loved one. Discuss your concerns and possible side effects with your child’s primary care provider or a mental health professional like a psychiatrist to get insight on whether antidepressants are a good fit.  

Learn more about child psychiatry, including how Talkiatry treats adolescents and children.

Which antidepressants are safe for teenagers?

The FDA has approved several antidepressants for children and teens. These medications are approved to treat a variety of mental health conditions, including major depressive disorder (MDD), generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and bipolar depression.  

Here are the FDA-approved medications for teens struggling with major depressive disorder.

Your child’s doctor may also recommend other antidepressant treatment—like Zoloft (sertraline) or Wellbutrin (bupropion)—for off-label use, which means they aren’t FDA-approved to treat depression in teens. Even though they aren’t explicitly approved to treat depression, there is evidence they are an effective treatment option, so many providers still prescribe them.  

Your child’s doctor can help you and your child decide which medications, if any, are right for them. Regardless of which medication your child takes, monitor them closely for negative side effects and to see if the medication positively impacts their behavior and emotions.  

What are the long-term effects of antidepressants?

Antidepressants may help your child out of a depressive episode and enable them to reconnect with friends and improve their performance in school. In fact, taking antidepressants until symptoms of depression have cleared, if not longer, may prevent relapses into more depressive episodes in the future.  

Long-term use of antidepressants is generally considered to be safe. It’s possible that antidepressants lose their effectiveness over time or cause other side effects, like diminished sexual functioning or temporary insomnia and gastrointestinal issues. However there are risks for not treating teenage depression, including the risk of suicide, so it’s important to know that help is available. If you have questions about your child’s long-term care plan or the side effects of antidepressants, make sure to speak with your child’s healthcare provider.

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What are other ways to treat depression?  

Medication, although common, isn’t the only effective way to treat depression. Many people with depression benefit greatly from cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). This form of talk therapy is often a first-line treatment, or used in addition to medication.  

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a type of psychotherapy in which a therapist and patient work together to help the patient form new thinking and behavioral processes. CBT typically involves discussing what’s going on in the patient’s life, and doing exercises to help them address their struggles—both in-person and as “homework” between sessions.  

Many people who participate in CBT find that it greatly improves their quality of life and provides them with more effective coping mechanisms for the future.  

How to find a child psychiatrist  

The key to an effective depression treatment plan is finding the right mental healthcare professional. So, how do you find one? There are a few ways to find qualified child psychiatrists, including getting referrals. Consider asking your child’s pediatrician or primary care provider for a referral. Alternatively, ask other trusted parents and friends if they’ve found good mental healthcare providers for their children.  

You can also do your own research to find a psychiatrist. One place to start is with Talkiatry. Talkiatry is a national mental health practice that treats a number of issues, like depression and ADHD( attention deficit hyperactivity disorder). child and  psychiatry practice that treats adults, children, and teens alike. We provide in-network, virtual care—and we have a team that specialize in child and adolescent psychiatry. Get started with a short online assessment.

The information in this article is for education and informational purposes only and should never be substituted for medical advice, diagnoses, or treatment. If you or someone you know may be in danger, call 911 or the National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988 right away.

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Frequently asked questions

Does Talkiatry take my insurance?

We're in network with major insurers, including:

  • Aetna
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Even if your insurer isn't on the list, we might still accept it. Use the insurance eligibility checker in our online assessment to learn more.

Can I get an estimate of my visit cost?

The best way to get a detailed estimate of your cost is to contact your insurance company directly, since your cost will depend on the details of your insurance.  

For some, it’s just a co-pay. If you have an unmet deductible it could be more.  

Call the number on your insurance card and ask about your plan’s coverage for outpatient psychiatric services.

How does Talkiatry compare to face-to-face treatment?

For most patients, Talkiatry treatment is just as effective as in-person psychiatry (American Psychiatric Association, 2021), and much more convenient. That said, we don’t currently provide treatment for schizophrenia, primary eating disorder treatment, or Medication Assisted Treatment for substance use disorders.

What kind of treatment does Talkiatry provide?

At Talkiatry, we specialize in psychiatry, meaning the diagnosis and treatment of mental health conditions. Your psychiatrist will meet with you virtually on a schedule you set together, devise a treatment plan tailored to your specific needs and preferences, and work with you to adjust your plan as you meet your goals.

If your treatment plan includes medication, your psychiatrist will prescribe and manage it. If needed, your psychiatrist can also refer you to a Talkiatry therapist.

What's the difference between a therapist and psychiatrist?

Psychiatrists are doctors who have specialized training in diagnosing and treating complex mental health conditions through medication management. If you are experiencing symptoms of a mental health condition such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, PTSD, or similar, a psychiatrist may be a good place to start.  

Other signs that you should see a psychiatrist include:  

  • Your primary care doctor or another doctor thinks you may benefit from the services of a psychiatrist and provides a referral    
  • You are interested in taking medication to treat a mental health condition  
  • Your symptoms are severe enough to regularly interfere with your everyday life

The term “therapist” can apply to a range of professionals including social workers, mental health counselors, psychologists, professional counselors, marriage and family therapists, and psychoanalysts. Working with a therapist generally involves regular talk therapy sessions where you discuss your feelings, problem-solving strategies, and coping mechanisms to help with your condition.

Who can prescribe medication?

All our psychiatrists (and all psychiatrists in general) are medical doctors with additional training in mental health. They can prescribe any medication they think can help their patients. In order to find out which medications might be appropriate, they need to conduct a full evaluation. At Talkiatry, first visits are generally scheduled for 60 minutes or more to give your psychiatrist time to learn about you, work on a treatment plan, and discuss any medications that might be included.

Caitlin Gardiner, MD

Dr. Caitlin Gardiner is a board-certified psychiatrist specializing in child and adolescent psychiatry and psychotherapy.

Dr. Caitlin Gardiner's practice is based on the biopsychosocial model and believes that the foundation of healing is in psychotherapy and human connection. She is known for incorporating therapy into her medication management practice. Typically she offers 30-minute follow-up visits for medication management with focused therapy based on individual needs.

As a known helper, Dr. Gardiner started her career with a bachelors degree in social work from Cazenovia College in Cazenovia, NY. After changing career paths she received her medical degree from SUNY Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, NY. She stayed at Upstate to complete her general psychiatry residency where she was chief resident during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Following this, she completed her child and adolescent psychiatry fellowship at Upstate due to the high quality of training. Dr. Gardiner has completed 3 years of advanced training in Dynamic Deconstructive Psychotherapy as well as specialized training in DBT.

Dr. Gardiner is a well -rounded psychiatrist who enjoys treating youth and young adults during transitional phases of life while providing a safe and supportive environment. She believes strongly in reducing polypharmacy and providing high-quality medication management through a therapeutic and developmental lens.

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