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.

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.

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