What is depression?

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 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 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.

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