Teenage Depression

I have been a regular listener of your podcast for quite some time now.  I first found the podcast after returning from Israel, where I had the pleasure of staying with Jewish friends and getting to know a little more of their faith and culture.  When I came home I started searching for ways to continue learning from that worldview because I greatly admire the Jewish perspective. 

Not long ago you did an episode where you  spoke of depression and you said something that resonated with me then, and continues to stay on my mind.  To paraphrase, you said, “Happiness is not the opposite of depression, the opposite of depression is purpose.” 

I have a teenage daughter who struggles with depression; she has every symptom.  We have her seeing a counselor who was the first to mention to us that she is very likely clinically depressed.  This brings me to my twofold question; I hope you can provide information that will help us.

How does a depressed person find purpose, and how does a parent guide a depressed teen toward their purpose?

Thank you for any wisdom you have to share.


Matthew M.

Dear Matthew,

Thank you for your kind words;  we are terribly sorry to hear of your daughter’s struggles. You are clearly a loving father and doing whatever you can including working with a counselor. We are sure you understand that anything we say is intended as general advice since we neither know your daughter’s specific situation nor do we have special expertise with teenage girls (other than having raised quite a few of our own) or with clinical depression.

Before we touch on your question about purpose, we would like to suggest that you become familiar with two resources. The first is Dr. Leonard Saks’ book, Girls on the Edge, which Susan recommended in her Practical Parenting column. Dr. Saks, a pediatrician, shares fascinating research on teenage girls. From our perspective, one of the most interesting is his conclusion as to the importance of faith in keeping girls emotionally healthy, but his book will give you much insight. We also recommend becoming familiar with the folks who made Screenagers, a movie that focuses on the effects of technology on our teens. They note that social media seems to be affecting girls, in particular, in an emotionally harmful way.

As the above resources will help clarify,  your daughter’s depression is part of a trend. You could say that in some ways our society has been behaving in ways that promote depression and anxiety in youngsters. For example, for many years we have been a “panic” culture and the GICs are epicenters of hysteria.  Not surprisingly, it has impacted the children.  Another culprit is the media which constantly warns us in deathly tones of the newest threat to our survival. Many schools and teachers exacerbate this to the point of assigning students to write letters to politicians and newspapers pleading for them to “act now” to keep the world or the environment or our democracy safe. The threat changes with political winds, but the common theme is that danger constantly lurks.

We mention these things to emphasize that your daughter may be surrounded by people opposing her interests and a culture working against your goal of her being mentally and spiritually healthy. While you will make your own efforts, as long as a teenager is in that environment parents are running up the down escalator. It takes extra and sometimes extreme effort to combat those influences.

Let us get to your question about purpose. Being a person of faith helps a great deal with this. If we humans are the result of no more than a long process of unaided materialistic evolution, then our existence is random.  Everything about our lives is just random happenstance.  Our lives have no real meaning. However, if on the other hand,  a good and loving God created us and put us each on this planet, then He did so for a reason. Our life quest is to discover and fulfill that unique purpose for which He created us. His world was not complete without us!

While we are on that search (many of us are on that search for most or all of our lives), we are meant to be givers. In direct opposition to today’s selfie culture of entitlement, we need to create an ‘elsie’ culture of obligation and responsibility. Something as small as smiling at and greeting people you pass on the street or who are behind the counter in a store yields great internal rewards. Depending on a teen’s interests, he or she can find purpose tutoring at a Boys and Girls Club, visiting or entertaining at a senior center or making dinner for local families who have newborns or ill children. At first, this might mean taking on one of these activities as a family. Giving to others is one of the best ways to make ourselves feel better. If each day a teen has something on her calendar that makes someone else’s life better, then getting up in the morning is imbued with purpose.

One of the best ways to formalize this important life element is with a job.  We’d encourage you and other parents to explore the possibility of your children having a real ‘for-pay’ job.  They might absorb one of the principles in our book, Thou Shall Prosper, that customer service is akin to worship service.  Having a job means taking care of another person’s needs and taking care of the needs and desires of another of God’s children makes our Creator smile. More importantly, it provides our lives with purpose.

Another area to explore is for teenagers to acquire and assume responsibility for a pet such as a dog or a cat. (Or a llama.  A goldfish doesn’t really help very much!)

We’d like to issue a caveat. Help teens wisely pick an activity. Take care to avoid getting involved in fighting climate change, advocating for gun control or any other political hot potato designed to make them feel hopeless and ineffective.

We pray that you and your daughter find ways to overcome this hurdle and that she moves forward to a bright and optimistic future.


Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin

16 thoughts on “Teenage Depression”

  1. Sarah de Orlando

    Thank you, Rabbi. As a woman who has battled depression for decades with various treatments, finding true purpose does ring true for my soul. It has not eliminated my need for medication or therapy in different seasons but helped me feel anchored when emotional storms rage. I would appreciate knowing which episode Matthew M. is referencing so I may listen and learn.

  2. Love and time yield great results. We had a brutal time with our beautiful daughter. The excellent GIC our children attended did not help but did exacerbate the problem. Much of it started after I suffered a major stroke that nearly took my life. We were on the edge every day as I couldn’t work. There were no luxuries that many teens have in our district. This wore on my little girl and she also was mad at the pain I was in. I was a mess for a couple of years. Despite her torment she kept swimming and we absorbed the daily abuse. Finally, the aliens that took our little girl brought her back. Occasionally, she was reabducted but the time away became shorter and shorter. Now, she has her own apartment (often does her grocery shopping in our fridge and pantry), own car and car loan and found her purpose in helping teenagers placed in a group home. She just initiated a family night of dinner and games for the parents and kids to have time together and Form bonds of love.
    If it is a chemical imbalance I hope it can be fixed quickly, if it is something else I pray for you to have patience and love. Having a purpose broke every last vestige of her depression. It was a wild ride but worth it to see her now.

    1. Louis, so glad to hear that your family came out of a dark place. When we are in the midst of the crisis we don’t know how it will end up, but it is always helpful to hear of a happy ending.

  3. Thank you, Lapins! Your books have helped me to have a healthier relationship with money and opportunity to better benefit some of God’s other children through my math and physics tutoring! What are GICs mentioned in the article? Thank you in advance. Have a pleasant day!

    1. Thanks for your kind words, Mark. GIC = Government Indoctrination Camps formerly known as public schools. My husband has been calling them that on his podcast for a while and, unfortunately, there are many, many examples to back up the claim.

  4. Counselor is good, but if this person is not a psychiatrist, please consider taking your daughter to a medical doctor who specializes in dealing with problems of the human brain. My wife suffered from chronic depression for many years. Nothing seemed to help until she was prescribed Prozac and a series of similar medications. We seemed to get a year or more out of a medication, before it was necessary to change to something else. She even got a year or so out of Saint John Wart. Fortunately, after more than two decades, she has improved to the point that she no longer requires medication, or medical supervision. Although she still has bad days, it appears that she is winning her battle with depression. A chemical imbalance in the brain can be a real, measurable scientific fact and medication can help.

  5. While I love what you said about purpose, that is great for the psychology side; however, clinical depression needs to be addressed by a psychiatrist who will in turn, determine what is the proper medication regimen for that particular case.

  6. Dr Rabbi Lapin & Mrs. Lapin,
    A class put on by a disabled student body services in a college was bright in the reinforcement of former commonly held earlier social norms. It appears that the bettering is therefore not gained by non-action, and these attendees some skills which they carry still. Mature reasoning , behavior, and responsibility seen in one who still communicates.
    Perhaps expectations are positive building blocks.

  7. I wish to support Rabbi Lapin’s comment about ‘bizarre incentivizations’ in the mental health industry. Our eldest daughter grew up lacking nothing at all, and yet she emerged from her teenaged years with a sense of depression. She fell from one psychotropic drug into another with her physician’s support. If you visit a doctor, so oft they will put you on drugs. Won’t they indeed? Then she fell in love, married, only to lose her husband in a frightful accident and thereby became a single mom to her three fine children. But her depression was gone with the wind! She reported to us at the end of her depressive odyssey: ‘I now know why I was depressed. Before it was all about ME.’ In her precious children she found a new sense of purpose that opened her eyes into a world larger than self.

    Somebody once said: ‘Being all wrapped up in oneself makes for a very small package.’ English singer Ralph McTell wrote a powerful song called ‘The Streets of London’ that introduces a series of characters pitiful and hopeless that will make you count your blessings.

  8. If the girl suffers from clinical depression i.e. a medical illness, then she needs to see a medical doctor and be treated medically. Having a sense of purpose will not cure cancer or reverse high blood pressure. Clinical depression is a medical condition based on abnormal chemical processing in the brain. It requires medical treatment. Taking care of a cat won’t cure her medical problem. Please advise medical treatment of medical conditions.

    1. Theresa, what you are saying is why we prefaced our words with a caveat that we were not speaking about his specific daughter and her situation. She is under the care of someone. We were answering the question about how to help our children find purpose in their lives.

    2. Rabbi Daniel Lapin

      Dear Theresa–
      It’s not all quite as simple as that, even though you may have had personal experiences that suggest it is. This is obviously not the place for a full-fledged analysis of today’s mental health industry and its bizarre incentivizations mostly revealed in DSM V.

    3. It’s true that there are real physical components to clinical depression, but the causes of depression (and therefore the brain chemistry aspect) can involve a person’s environment, lifestyle, diet, other health factors such as autoimmune problems, beliefs, spiritual health, on and on. It is wise and necessary to address deep universal needs such as purpose as part of addressing depression. Bob Hamp is a clinical psychologist who has an excellent talk on depression (it’s on YouTube), and he advocates for attacking depression on as many fronts as is practical for the individual. He describes depression not as something we either have or don’t have, but as a continuum on which we are always moving either toward depression, or away from it and toward expression of who we were created to be. I think the Lapins have capably explored one component of this complex problem.

      1. Heather
        Yes! Well said!
        Like other issues humans face the remedy may require a holistic approach.

  9. Great advice!
    A study done years ago on the affects of watching television on teenage girls comes to my mind. (This was long before the widespread use of the internet or social media.) It was found that while watching television, the metabolism levels of teenage girls became lower than while sleeping. That sounds a good deal like depression too.
    Living purposefully and filling up one’s day with meaningful work and activities is good for everyone.

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