Same Problem, Different Symptoms: How Age Impacts Mental Health Issues

It has always been a challenge to explain mental health diagnoses to people, as the diagnoses does not do a great job in summarizing the individual experiences of those who have the conditions. Terms like Major Depressive Disorder or Panic Disorder give some kind of a picture of what a person is dealing with, but they present a very simple explanation that does not account for all of the millions of individual moments a person experiences with these disorders. Even the term disorder is often misunderstood. A disorder seems like something going wrong, but is a panic attack a wrong response when life or death circumstances are on the line, or is depression a disorder when a person is homeless and has no support from anyone? The biggest misunderstanding in the world of diagnosis for the layperson appears to be the differences on how different mental health conditions impact people differently based on their age. While age can have multiple meanings: maturity, physical age, mental age, life stage, etc., I believe there is a need for education focused primarily on how different diagnoses impact people differently based on their physical age.

Many adults have children with mental health conditions. They expect these to manifest how it does in adults or even how it appears in themselves. The truth is, a young child experiences most diagnoses different than a teenager, an adult, or an elderly individual. There is also a large amount of people at all ages who are told they are experiencing a certain diagnosis, but it does not fit their vision of how that diagnosis presents so they resist the correct treatment. Often this is due to them being an age where a certain disorder does not always present in the “classic” ways, or has some unique qualities. The causes of these differences in presentation of diagnoses for different ages are complex, and definitely involve things like hormones, brain development, social settings, and life experiences. However, the causes are not as important as understanding the differences themselves as to not misinterpret your own or another’ mental health diagnosis. Let’s look at a few diagnoses that are common and can present in different ways based on age.

Depression- Not Always Sadness

Depression, or Major Depressive Disorder, is certainly in the top two most commonly mentioned mental health diagnosis in the general public. This is due not only to how common the condition itself is, but also due to the simplicity of how it is viewed. It is easy to understand from a very basic perspective, depression is a deep and pervasive sadness that does not always match the circumstances surrounding a person. The problems with this viewpoint arises not only in the ways it oversimplifies the experience of the condition, but in how this viewpoint is expected to be applicable to all ages of people who suffer with it. The most common misinterpretation of depression comes when looking at young children and teenagers.

In young children, deep despair and sadness is not always the primary symptom of depression. In fact, try to remember the last time you saw a young child exhibiting symptoms of despair. Besides their pouty faces during times of frustration, you do not see many little kids showing the symptoms of a dark cloud hovering over their mood constantly as you would with an adult with depression. Young children instead exhibit depression most commonly as anger. They may be more prone to tantrums, or just a general demeanor of irritation and obstinance that is often mistaken for just being stubborn. Depression manifests as anger in kids for multiple complex reasons, but a simple way to see it is they don’t have the developed inner monologue to even explain to themselves why they are upset, so they lash out at the world around them which is supposed to comfort them.

Depression in teens is a very intense struggle for both the teenager themselves and those around them. While there is no scientific age of when an individuals depression will manifest one way or another, most teens between the ages of 14 and 18 will experience a mix of the anger type depression of young children and the melancholy version of adults. In some ways, it is the worst of both worlds as their emotions are intense in the form of frustration at times, and deeply negative in the form of sadness. Add the social issues that surround teenage life and it’s no wonder why this age is especially tough to manage both for the teenager and their family. Teenagers have a challenging mix of developed enough brains to experience deep emotional pain without having developed enough brains to regulate themselves at all times. Some parents confuse teenage depressive episodes for some kind of rebellion, which is a natural phase of life at this age. The rebellion is a push of limits, but depression is a complete disengagement from behavior and attitudes that lead to positive development in life. Knowing the difference is key to getting teenagers the help they need.

Anxiety- Same topics, different thoughts

Anxiety is a lifelong occurrence. Notice I did not say condition or disorder, as is doesn’t matter if you have a true clinical problem with anxiety, you will experience it throughout your whole life to some degree. Anxiety presents differently at different age groups both physically and mentally, but it has always been more interesting to me how the mental thoughts and processes are different depending on age.

The average adult experiences two kinds of high anxiety: anxiety attacks where we feel all the symptoms of anxiety and the racing thoughts, but are aware it is anxiety, and panic attacks where the symptoms are just as if not more intense and we begin to believe we are going to die, pass out, go crazy, etc. The thoughts for the former of the two are something akin to, “this sucks, I hate this, I want to calm down, this is uncomfortable. During panic attacks the thoughts are more like, “I am dying, it’s a heart attack, I can’t control myself, something terrible is happening.” However, when talking to teenagers I often hear very different things about the contents of their thoughts during high anxiety. Some teens will report thoughts like, “I’m going to vomit and be laughed at, if I cry no one will like me, I’m going to pass out and people will think I’m insane.” Notice there is a lot more social implication to teenager thoughts. Adults are more focused on themselves, teens on how their anxious reactions are going to make others think about them.

Young kids report different thoughts during highly anxious moments too. Their thoughts, as would be expected, sometimes don’t really make sense in a logical way. They may report things like, “my stomach hurts because I am bad”, or “I’m scared of everything.” Young children are not equipped to fully understand that anxiety is an emotion instead of a state of being. They will believe that they are an anxious person, as opposed to experiencing a temporary state of being caused by a trigger. It is important to watch young children for signs of anxiety like retreating from new situations, stomach issues, and inability to interact with new peers.

If you would like to learn more about how different mental health conditions present for different age groups, please contact Life Enhancement Counseling Services today at 407-443-8862 to schedule an appointment with one of our experienced mental health counselors.


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