As COVID-Related Depression Spikes in Teens, a Refresher of Terms

depression triggered by loss is normal, while clinical depression involves the limbic system

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

Depression levels in teens are the highest psychologists have ever seen. Without access to new experiences, peers, a normal social structure, or personal connections, teenagers are suffering stagnation that sometimes ends in suicide. Depression falls into two distinct categories: reactive and clinical.

Depressed teenager in their room
Psychologists are noting reactive and clinical depression levels in teens at record highs since COVID-19 shutdowns began last year. Photo By Mike_shots / Shutterstock

Depression during the novel coronavirus pandemic has skyrocketed. One of the most unique and difficult causes is twofold: not only has COVID-19 been incredibly disruptive to the daily life of nearly everyone on Earth, but there’s never been a confirmable end date to this disruption. Such a thing would be impossible to know for sure. One of the most social demographics on Earth has been hit especially hard by stay-at-home measures: teenagers.

Grades are slipping, high schoolers are becoming disengaged from their families, and psychologists say that levels of distress, including suicidal feelings, are the highest they’ve ever seen in adolescents. How can parents and grandparents figure out what’s going on in the heads of teenagers when virtual learning and current quarantine measures are so unprecedented?

In her video series Understanding the Brain, Dr. Jeanette Norden, Professor of Neurosciences in the College of Arts and Sciences at Vanderbilt University, explained the two major kinds of depression: reactive and clinical.

Identifying Depression

The key to understanding depression is in the limbic system, a network of structures in the brain.

“[The limbic system] is responsible for our engagement with the world,” Dr. Norden said. “The subsystems that are part of this larger system are involved in learning, memory, emotion, and executive function. If you throw off any of the balance between all these different nuclei, all these different pathways, then you have changes in mood, changes in personality.”

One of the most common examples of this is depression. Despite being a very complex disorder, depression can be broadly categorized into just two categories. The first is reactive depression.

Reactive depression is a normal reaction to a loss of some kind. Whether facing a death in the family, a divorce, losing trust in a close friend, or other scenarios, someone suffering from reactive depression will go through a series of stages and overcome it. It can be very impactful and heartbreaking, but it is nevertheless normal.

Clinical depression, the other form of depression, is an entirely different thing. Unlike reactive depression, it has no identifiable stimulus that causes it. Furthermore, Dr. Norden said, it’s a medical condition—a neurological disorder “resulting from an imbalance of neurotransmitters in the limbic system.”

“It isn’t caused as a reaction to something; it’s not the way the brain is normally wired to respond,” she said. However, to make matters more complicated, the two can be related.

“It can be triggered—reactive depression can sometimes trigger clinical depression. So an individual who actually has a tendency towards clinical depression can have something happen in their life that then will result in being able to see a full-blown clinical depression.”

Clinical depression is notable for its severity. Dr. Norden said individuals feel a profound despair or hopelessness, they’re often self-loathing, and they may experience suicidal ideation or talk about how life is worthless.

By identifying depression, we can take our first steps to diagnosing and treating it. Readers are encouraged to speak with a medical professional if they or someone they know shows these symptoms.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily