Depression is more than teenage angst

Offering creative outlets for young people can help to stop symptoms turning into sickness

Being a teenager is tough. The world is a daunting place and the soup of hormones that flood teenagers' bodies can lead to rapid changes in mood and unusual behaviour. Most parents see these mood swings as part and parcel of the maturation process, but occasionally they hint at something more troubling.

As The National reports today, an estimated one high school pupil in five in Dubai shows above-normal symptoms of depression. The Dubai Health Authority looked at hundreds of students between the ages of 14 and 18, the first study of its kind in the UAE across private and public schools.

The study does not mean that so many students actually have depression. It merely identifies symptoms that might, if they persist or are exacerbated, develop into depression. Some of the conditions are particular to life in the UAE, such as a sense of cultural dislocation in a place with so many different nationalities. Others are problems found in every country, such as a lack of psychological support from families.

The study highlighted eight main predictors of depressive symptoms, the most interesting of which was a lack of physical activity. Taking little exercise was strongly correlated with elevated symptoms - 23.2 per cent of students who were physically inactive had elevated symptoms compared to 13.7 per cent of those who were active.

Physical inactivity is a particular problem in the GCC, where the car culture reigns supreme and the summer heat makes outdoor activity difficult. That is one reason why schools need to take a greater role in ensuring that pupils are active. Team sports and inter-school leagues are an obvious way of doing this.

At the same time, city planning has a role. Too many neighbourhoods, especially in the urban centres, lack facilities for physical activity. This is not merely a case of building more parks, but of ensuring that neighbourhoods have community spaces where children and teenagers can spread their wings.

Depression, as opposed to passing sadness or angst, is a serious problem that can easily go unnoticed. Families have the first responsibility to communicate with children and nurture their passage into adulthood, but society can do more to offer creative outlets for that teenage energy.