1 in 8 teens will experience depression while they are in High School, yet only 1 in 5 of those teens will receive help.

A common type of depression, often overlooked by adults, is existential depression.


What is Existential Depression?

  • Existential depression is often a combination of psychological and spiritual experiences in which matters of life and death, freedom, intimacy, and ultimate meaning weight heavily on a teen.

There are four aspects to existential depression (Yalom):

  1. Life and Death. At some point, we all catch a glimpse of our mortality. Teens who suffer from existential depression tend to catch more than a glimpse of their mortality and that realization affects their mood.
  2. Freedom. The idea that we have the ability and responsibility to choose our actions and course in life. For most teens, this feels good. Yet for some, realizing the implications of their freedom causes them to feel the weight of their own responsibility for their choices, which can create significant anxiety and subsequent depression.
  3. Isolation. The desire for intimacy- to know and be known by another. And the accompanying realization that I will never fully know what it’s like to be another person, nor will they fully realize what it’s like to be me.
  4. Meaning. As human beings, we are hardwired for meaning. We need to identify predictable patterns and in the absence of those, create explanations for the events and experiences in our life. The younger the teen and the more traumatic or significant a negative experience is, it makes it even more difficult for them to create positive and hopeful meaning from these types of events.

For years, existential depression was relegated to gifted teens or teens who are creatively or artistically talented. I have two issues with this:

  1. All teens are gifted and talented, some teens’ gifts and talents are more easily recognized and rewarded in middle and high school.
  2. I’ve worked with a number of teens who wouldn’t meet the classical criteria for “gifted and talented” who struggled with existential depression.

Why do certain teens experience existential depression?

  • Tragedy or trauma. For many teens, the death of a loved one, separation of family, natural disaster, or health condition affecting them or someone they know/love can cause them to question their existence and their purpose. Asking, “What is the point of all this?”
  • Betrayal. While adults may think we own the market on being unfaithful in relationships, infidelity is rampant among teens today. The consequences for some teens is a shattering of their worldview. As one teen told me “I loved her. I trusted her like I’ve trusted nobody else. If she can hurt me like this, how do I know someone else won’t? I don’t even know if I can trust myself now.”
  • Lack of Faith. Faith and religion are known to help people discover and maintain meaning in their everyday lives. Healthy religion and spirituality address all four aspects of existential depression in that they give meaning and purpose to our existence in this life. However brief and temporary, offer hope for a better life to come, connection in a healthy community, and guides for the right and responsible use of freedom.
  • Idealism. This is not only true for intellectually gifted kids, but for any teen who has an idealyc(idealistic?) world view. These teens can be highly sensitive to the injustices of the world that are obvious to them. They are frustrated by others who cannot see the problems as clearly and are unwilling to take decisive action, regardless of how impractical those actions might be.

What are some signs that my teen is experiencing existential depression?

  • A heightened and potentially obsessive preoccupation with matters of life, death, meaning, and the purpose of it all.
  • Sudden loss of interest in religious or spiritual participation
  • Sudden change to “not believing in God” or atheism or agnosticism (to be fair, not every teen who questions God’s existence or identifies with atheism or agnosticism is necessarily depressed).
  • Gradual to sudden loss in interest of the rest of life, since it is seen as without meaning.
  • Overhearing them often comment, “What’s the point?”
  • Increased feelings of isolation and loneliness.
  • Saying or feeling that “No one understands” which can lead to cutting off people who (possibly, may not be empathic) cared about them and offered them companionship.
  • Inability to tolerate the status quo – on just about anything.
  • Analysis paralysis caused by low motivation to do anything as it is likely seen as pointless.
  • Feelings of emptiness or of being numb.
  • Thoughts of suicide.

For more on Depression and other signs that your teen might be depressed click here.

What can adults do to help teens with existential depression?

  • Listen with empathy. Listen- not only for the content of what the teen is saying but for the underlying emotion.
  • Reflect back to them the content and the emotion. “So is it kind of like, “It’s hard to get myself motivated in the morning because I’m like ‘what’s the point? This whole thing, life, earth, people are a sham?”
  • Help them find areas of certainty. For existentially minded teens, much of this type of thinking and talk can be like nailing jello to a tree. It’s so amorphous that even after discussing it nothing “feels” resolved because nothing has been identified as concrete, solid, certain. Help them look for the smallest things, people, events situations circumstances in their life that are certain and solid.
  • Help them to take one small action. Sometimes, and this is often the case with these teens, we need to act our way into feeling or thinking. This type of kid usually wants to do the opposite.
  • Take an honest look at your own religious participation. What are you modeling? Where are your own inconsistencies and hypocrisies?
  • Be aware of tendencies to get defensive when they argue against things you believe or take for granted.
  • Help them find someone to talk with – a therapist who enjoys and is good at exploring these types of issues and with whom you’re comfortable with their values and spiritual-religious leanings.