Teens, Depression and Nutrition: Assessment and Support


According to the National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI) approximately 1 in 5 youths ages 13 to 18 experience a severe mental disorder at some point during their lives. What we need to know as parents is that the signs for depression in children are not the same as in adults. The most critical symptom to look for is a change in mood and behavior.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, these are some of the signs of teenage depression:

  • Feeling sad, hopeless or irritable a lot of the time – they may not always look sad.
  • Feeling worthless, useless or guilty -– acting like nothing matters.
  • Acting unmotivated – not wanting to participate, or seeming lazy.
  • Doesn’t seem to enjoy anything – not finding joy in their usual activities.
  • Having a hard time paying attention – poor listening skills, or performance at school.
  • Changes in eating patterns – eating a lot more or a lot less than usual.
  • Changes in sleep patterns – sleeping a lot more or a lot less than usual.
  • Changes in energy – being tired, sluggish, tense and/or restless a lot of the time.
  • Increase in physical complaints –– aches, pains and anxiety.
  • Acting out or getting into trouble -– in ways they didn’t before.
  • Self-injury and self-destructive behavior – this requires immediate intervention.

The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) recommends that healthcare providers routinely screen children for behavioral and mental health concerns.

Contributing Factors

There are many other factors to consider that may be causing a child to seem depressed. Many environmental toxins, i.e. household and school cleaning products, and chemical exposures to pesticides cause neurological symptoms. The National Academy of Sciences has determined that environmental factors contribute to 28 percent of developmental disorders in children. Situational stressors such as a new school, moving to a new home, adding a sibling, and family financial stress, can all have an effect on emotional health. There could be a family history of depression, which does not mean your child is destined to have it, but it should be discussed with your health professional. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine – National Institutes of Health, “Research over the past five years has provided exciting evidence for the influence of dietary factors on specific molecular systems and mechanisms that maintain mental function.”

Assessing Deficiencies

Our teenagers seem to be “running on empty,” deficient in so many areas of life. They spend so much time on schoolwork, after-school sports and activities, and even jobs that they often don’t leave time for their own care and emotional needs. This creates a time deficiency. Because of what seems like an “obsession with technology,” teenagers have social deficiencies that can contribute to their feelings of isolation and loneliness. There are also many media reports that instill fear into our children. There is valid reason for concern that there may not be enough emotional support to address those fears. Some children are deeply touched by the suffering of others, and without the skills to process their emotions, it can feel like a heavy burden – as real as the weight they carry from their school backpacks.

There are many educational demands on our teenagers as well as pressure to perform on tests and submit college applications. It is no wonder that many of them are cutting back on their sleep to try to keep up. Physical deficits caused by the average teenager not getting the recommended 8-10 hours of sleep per night, a lack of exercise and dehydration, compounded with the typical teen diet of junk food, can have psychological effects.    

Nutritional Support

“Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.”  ~ Hippocrates

There has been much evidence to support that food effects your mood. We are what we eat. What we consume and how it is grown or processed quite literally creates and maintains us.

Judy Converse, a Colorado-based pediatric nutritionist with master’s and undergraduate degrees in nutrition, says “whatever a child eats is all the fuel his or her brain has to learn, grow and develop.” In 1996, her own infant son experienced deep challenges with feeding, growth and allergies which inspired her to begin her Nutrition Care for Children practice in 1999.

“There are many options for using real food, special diets, nutrition and supplements to help support balancing the nutritional deficits that can lead to depression,” Converse says. “Correctly using fish oils, working with non-drug serotonin boosts, assessing methylated B12 levels, and using nutrigenomics can help leverage what works best for your teen or child.”

“The key is getting your child assessed professionally for what might work best in their individual case – don’t tinker and experiment on your own, especially if your teen is already on medications for mood or anxiety,” Converse strongly advises. “It’s also important to work with someone who has training in pediatric nutrition. Children aren’t little adults; even as teenagers, they have unique nutritional needs and concerns that adults do not have.”

Converse has authored four books on using nutrition to help special-needs kids thrive. Her client families include those challenged by autism, ADHD, asthma, allergies, feeding and growth concerns, behavior/mood/learning concerns, constipation and other gastrointestinal symptoms.

“Since this is a global issue, my practice includes distance work via Skype or phone. I have clients nationwide along with many other countries including Canada, Singapore, United Arab Emirates, Japan, and the UK,” says Converse. She can be reached at (303) 842-8255, or find out more on her extensive website http://www.nutritioncare.net/integrative-health-nutrition-kids.

Psychological support 

Christina Whitney, an MFT intern at Creekside Counseling Center in Redding, CA, has a master’s in psychology and a huge passion for health and wellness. She believes there is a correlation between diet and mental health. Nutrition information is part of the intake forms for assessment at Creekside, which specializes in child and adolescent counseling for ages 2 and up.

“I recently read a study on how firefighters were assessed and shown to have stable mental health until they were sent into a remote area with only easy-to-carry, processed foods, similar to what the military uses. When they returned they were found to have many mental health symptoms, including depression,” Whitney says.

Creekside Counseling Center is a California non-profit corporation with 17 therapists and can be reached at (530) 722-9957, or learn more by visiting http://www.creeksidecounseling.org.

Susan Bertozzi, LMFT, nutritional therapy practitioner and certified NeuroNutrient Therapy specialist at the Center for Emotional Balance in Chico, CA, uses amino acid therapy in her practice with promising results. With this treatment, she has witnessed a nearly 85 percent success rate in treating teens for emotional well-being who are suffering from symptoms of mild-to-moderate depression and anxiety.

  Bertozzi prefers to work nutritionally in combination with cognitive behavioral and other psychotherapeutic approaches. She believes positive thoughts and a well-rounded lifestyle with exercise and healthy nutrition can also have a substantial impact on mental health. In addition to her training as a NeuroNutrient therapy specialist and a nutritional therapy practitioner, she has three years of training as a certified clinical herbalist and certified classical homeopath.

NeuroNutrient therapy is a natural approach to help balance brain chemistry. Bertozzi has trained extensively with Julia Ross, author of The Mood Cure, and witnessed amazing results using nutrition and targeted amino acids.

“Certain foods can be used to increase serotonin in the bloodstream and help rebalance brain chemistry,” says Bertozzi. “Amino acid therapy should be monitored by a professional because there is a restorative phase and a maintenance phase.”

Bertozzi also recommends an anti-inflammatory diet rich in adequate protein, healthy carbohydrates with colorful vegetables, and a proper amount of healthy fats. Biochemicals found in foods with Omega-3 fats can support brain chemistry.

“Teens suffering from depression can’t always make good choices – in part due to deficiencies in their brain chemistry. This sets them up for a vicious cycle by turning to unhealthy foods or other substances,” Bertozzi says. “More and more kids are self-medicating with marijuana and other drugs which can cause further imbalances to the brain.” She finds it rewarding to work with teens and to witness their transformation.

Bertozzi can be reached at the Center for Emotional Balance at (530) 518-7231, or learn more by visiting http://www.emotionalbalancecenter.com.

Parental Support

Lauren Bondy, LCSW, and co-founder of Parenting Perspectives in the Chicago’s, IL metropolitan area says, “Parenting is the hardest job you’ll ever do without training.” She and Karen Jacobson teach parenting classes in person and on DVD, and in early 2017 will be offering an online Conscious Parenting course. During the past 14 years the women have taught more than 14,000 parents, developing a four-week course and 25 different workshops.

“Watching my own teenagers navigate their way through self-care and self-awareness has been both nerve-wracking and rewarding. As parents, we teach them and like planting seeds, we wait to see how they grow,” Bondy says. “There are days we wonder if our words, love and teachings are taking root. We can get anxious and worried about them as we see them struggling or making poor choices. We need to find balance between letting go and friendly, loving reminders while tolerating their ‘eye-rolls’. But above all, we must trust that the healthy messages we offer are getting through on some level.  Eventually, we see evidence that they are learning to keep their bodies in balance. The most important thing parents can do is to educate themselves and set a good example of self care.”

Bondy has authored The Five Basics Workbook to help clients take action in the essential components of self care: water, nutrition, exercise, sleep and stress reduction. She also recommends the book The Mindfulness Solution by Ron Seigel for support in conscious parenting. She offers skype sessions and can be reached at (847) 562-9503, or to learn more visit http://www.parentingperspectives.com.

Family Support

Remi Vista, Inc., offers youth and family services, including teen and parent support groups, for families coping with mental illness. Mental Health Program Manager Marilyn Flanigan says, “Group therapy is often utilized to help children and youth resolve their issues with others who are struggling with the same types of issues. Groups meet weekly for 6-8 weeks and are often themed to deal with issues of depression, grief and loss, or divorce. A few of the current group options are: processing, social skills, Mad Scientist, Girls Circle, and even a very popular Harry Potter themed group.” Childcare is available to help assist parents to attend.

“There are multiple benefits to participating in psychotherapy. Therapists can provide support, problem-solving skills, and enhanced coping strategies for issues such as depression, anxiety, relationship troubles, unresolved childhood issues, grief, stress management, body image issues and creative blocks,” says Marilyn.

Remi Vista, Inc. has offices in many counties including Butte, Shasta and Siskiyou. Call the main office in Redding at (530) 224-7160 for more information, or send an email to info@remivistainc.org, and visit http://www.remivistainc.net. 

There is hope for helping our teens in these supportive ways, but be sure to consult a licensed health care professional as this is informational and not official, medical advice. 

To learn more visit these websites mentioned above:

Recommended Books:

  • Special-Needs Kids Go Pharm-Free: Nutrition-Focused Tools to Help Minimize Meds and Maximize Health and Well-Being by Judy Converse
  • The Mindfulness Solution: Everyday Practices for Everyday Problems by Ronald D. Siegel
  • The Mood Cure: The 4-Step Program to Rebalance Your Emotional Chemistry and Rediscover Your Natural Sense of Well-Being by Julia Ross
  • Depression-Free Naturally: 7 Weeks to Eliminating Anxiety, Despair, Fatigue, and Anger from Your Life by Joan Mathews Larson
  • The Crazy Makers: How the Food Industry Is Destroying Our Brains and Harming Our Children by Carol Simontacchi
  • Emotional Intelligence: Why it can matter more than IQ by Daniel Goleman
  • Molecules of Emotion by Candace B. Pert


Telephone Hotlines:

  • California Youth Crisis Line: 1-800-843-5200
  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)

Crisis Text Line:
New Ways for Youth in Crisis to Reach Help:
If you need help, text LISTEN to 741741.
The Crisis Text Line will respond 24/7.

Resources By County:

Butte County Behavioral Health
Crisis line: 1-800-334-6622 or (530) 891-2810
3217 Cohasset Rd., Chico
Butte County Youth Outpatient Centers: Chico, Gridley, Oroville, Paradise

Glenn County Behavioral Health
24-hr Mental Health Crisis Line: 1-800-507-3530
Willows Location: 242 North Villa Ave., (530) 934-6582
Orland Location: 1187 E. South St., (530) 865-6459

Shasta County Behavioral Health
24-hr mental health line: (530) 225-5252 or (888) 385-5201
2640 Breslauer Way, Redding, CA 96001
(530) 225-5200, toll free 1(888) 385-5201

Siskiyou County Behavioral Health
Crisis hotline 1-800-842-8979
North County Office
2060 Campus Dr., Yreka
(530) 841-4100
Children’s System of Care: (530) 841-4800

Tehama County Behavioral Health
24-hr crisis line: (530) 527-5637 or 1-800-240-3208
Tehama County Mental Health Division
1860 Walnut St., Suite A, Red Bluff
(530) 527-5631

Other Resources:

California Department of Health Care Services
Children’s Services ages birth–21 years, with certain diseases or health problems. Connects patients with doctors & trained health care professionals & can help with items & expenses not covered by insurance. http://www.dhcs.ca.gov/services/ccs

Butte: (530) 895-6546
Shasta: (530) 225-5760
Siskiyou: (530) 841-2132
Tehama: (530) 527-6824

Student Mental Health Initiative, Regional K-12 http://www.regionalk12smhi.org

Each Mind Matters

California’s Mental Health Movement http://www.eachmindmatters.org

Tami Graham
About Tami Graham

Tami Graham is grateful for all of the past struggles of her life because they have made her who she is today: an optimistic soul, full of compassion. Being a mother has been her hardest and most rewarding job, and her children have been her greatest teachers.

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