Depression is a mental illness marked by persistent feelings of sadness, irritability, loss of interest in activities, feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness, and sometimes, thoughts of suicide. It affects the way one feels, thinks, and acts. Often, people who are depressed also experience changes in their sleeping and eating habits and have trouble concentrating. A diagnosis of depression is made when symptoms persist for two weeks or longer and interfere with a person's ability to function.
Can children suffer from depression?
Yes. Childhood depression is different from the normal “blues” and everyday emotions that occur as a child develops. When symptoms persist and interfere with social activities, interests, schoolwork, and family life, however, a child may have depression.
Depression is not a passing mood, nor is it a condition that will go away without proper treatment. Depression is often not diagnosed and treated because the symptoms are passed off as normal emotional and psychological changes that occur during growth. Keep in mind that while depression is a serious illness, it also is a treatable one. Parents should speak with their child's pediatrician or contact a mental health professional if they have any concerns about changes in a child's mood or behavior.
How can I tell if my child is depressed?
Every child with depression may present with a unique set of symptoms.
Signs and symptoms of depression in children include:
- Irritability, anger, or being “on edge”
- Persistent feelings of sadness, hopelessness
- Withdrawal from previously enjoyed activities as well as from friends and family
- Increased sensitivity to rejection or criticism
- Changes in appetite (either increased or decreased)
- Changes in sleep (sleeplessness or too much sleep)
- Crying or temper tantrums
- Difficulty concentrating and focusing
- Fatigue (tiredness) and low energy
- Physical complaints (such as stomach aches, headaches) that do not respond to treatment
- Reduced ability to function during activities at home or with friends, in school, extracurricular activities, and in other hobbies or interests
- Feelings of worthlessness or guilt
- Thoughts or talk of death or suicide
Not all depressed children will have all of these symptoms. In fact, most will have different symptoms at different times and in different settings. Although some children may continue to function reasonably well in structured environments, most kids with significant depression will suffer a noticeable change in social activities, loss of interest in school and poor academic performance, or a change in appearance. Experimentation with drugs or alcohol may also be a sign of an underlying mental illness.
Although relatively rare in youths under 12, young children do attempt suicide, and may do so impulsively when they are anxious, angry, or upset. Girls are more likely to attempt suicide, but boys are more likely to actually succeed in killing themselves when attempting suicide. Children with a family history of violence, alcohol abuse, or physical or sexual abuse are at greater risk for suicide, as are those with symptoms of depression. Children are also at risk when they have access to firearms or medications at home.
How common is depression in children?
The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that at least 3.3% of children 13 to 18 years old have had episodes of severe depression. The American Academy of Adolescent Psychiatry estimates this number to be 5%. Suicide is the third leading cause of death in young people between the ages of 10 and 24.
What causes depression in children?
As in adults, depression in children can be caused by any combination of factors such as
- physical illness (such as diabetes or epilepsy)
- stressful life events
- environment (including family problems)
- family history (others in the family have depression)
- alcohol or drug use
How is depression in children diagnosed?
If concerning symptoms in your child have lasted for at least two weeks, you should schedule a visit with his or her doctor to make sure there are no physical reasons for the symptoms and to make sure that your child receives proper treatment. The doctor may recommend that your child see a mental health care professional who specializes in treatment of children.
There are no medical (blood or imaging) or psychological tests that can diagnose depression. A mental health evaluation should include interviews with you (as the parents) and your child, and if necessary any additional psychological testing or questionnaires. Information from teachers, friends, and classmates can be useful for showing that these symptoms are a definite change from previous behavior.
How is childhood depression treated?
Treatment options for children with depression are similar to those for adults and include psychotherapy (counseling), medication, or a combination of the two. The severity of symptoms often guides the mental health professional in making a particular recommendation for your child. For example, if symptoms are mild, your child's doctor may suggest psychotherapy first, and consider antidepressant medicine as an additional option if there is no major improvement over the next few months.
Although many antidepressants are routinely used in treating children with depression, the two FDA-approved medications are fluoxetine (Prozac®) for ages 8 and older and escitalopram (Lexapro®) for ages 12 and older. Antidepressants must be used with caution, however, as some individuals may have no improvement or feel worse (i.e., more suicidal than when they started taking the medication).
Additional notes about antidepressant medications:
Different children can react differently to the same drug.
It is important to avoid potentially harmful drug interactions, such as with cold or asthma medications.
If the doctor prescribes antidepressant medication for your child, you need to watch the child's condition closely. Parents should clarify with the physician the goals and limitations that can be expected from a particular medication. Further, parents should be familiar with common and serious potential side effects.
No patient should suddenly stop taking antidepressants, because this may cause side effects such as agitation or increased depression.
Since suicidal thoughts often go with depression, guns should be removed from the home and large quantities of medications (including over-the-counter drugs) should be locked away.
What can I expect long-term?
Studies have found that depression in children is occurring at younger ages; in addition, depression and anxiety disorders may occur again later in life. Therefore, proper diagnosis, early treatment, and close monitoring are crucial.
A parent's perspective
As a parent, it is sometimes easier to deny that your child has depression because of the social stigmas associated with mental illness. It is very important to understand that a combination of factors contribute to depression (see question about causes). Treatment of depression can allow your child to continue to develop into a healthy adult, physically and emotionally. Without treatment, depression has the potential to affect your child throughout the rest of his or her life.
Parents should be especially alert for signs that their child is at risk for suicide.
Warning signs of suicidal behavior in children include:
- Severe depressive symptoms (significant changes in eating, sleeping, activities)
- Social isolation
- Talk of suicide, hopelessness, or helplessness
- Increased acting out behaviors (sexual/behavioral)
- Increased risk-taking behaviors
- Frequent accidents
- Drug and/or alcohol abuse
- Focus on morbid and negative themes
- Talk about death and dying
- Increased crying or reduced expression of emotions
- Giving away possessions
As with any other medical emergency, if you feel that your child is in danger, take your child to the nearest emergency department or call 911.
- American Academy of Pediatrics - Mental Health and Teens: Watch for Danger Signs
- American Academy of Family Physicians: Depression in Children and Teens
- American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry: The Depressed Child
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Suicide Prevention
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This information is provided by the Cleveland Clinic and is not intended to replace the medical advice of your doctor or health care provider. Please consult your health care provider for advice about a specific medical condition. This document was last reviewed on: 1/16/2015…#14938