Depression In Children

Major depression is one of the mental, emotional, and behavior disorders that can appear during childhood and adolescence. This type of depression affects a young person's thoughts, feelings, behavior, and body. Major depression in children and adolescents is serious; it is more than "the blues." Depression can lead to school failure, alcohol or other drug use, and even suicide.

At any point in time 10-15% of children and adolescents have some symptoms of depression. Having a family history of depression, particularly a parent who had depression at an early age, also increases the chances that a child or adolescent may develop depression.

Once a young person has experienced a major depression, he or she is at risk of developing another depression within the next 5 years. This young person is also at risk for other mental health problems.

Signs of Depression in Children

Young people with depression may have a hard time coping with everyday activities and responsibilities, have difficulty getting along with others, and suffer from low self-esteem. Signs of depression often include:

  • Sadness that won't go away
  • Hopelessness, boredom
  • Unexplained irritability or crying
  • Loss of interest in usual activities
  • Changes in eating or sleeping habits
  • Alcohol or substance abuse
  • Missed school or poor school performance
  • Threats or attempts to run away from home
  • Outbursts of shouting, complaining
  • Reckless behavior
  • Aches and pains that don't get better with treatment
  • Thoughts about death or suicide

Adolescents with major depression are likely to identify themselves as depressed before their parents suspect a problem. The same may be true for children.

Treatment for Depression in Children

While several types of antidepressant medications can be effective to treat adults with depression, these medications may not be as effective in treating children and adolescents. Care must be used in prescribing and monitoring all medication.

Although the scientific literature on treatment of children and adolescents with depression is far less extensive than that for adults, a number of recent studies have confirmed the short term efficacy and safety of treatments for depression in youth. A clinical trial of 439 adolescents with major depression found that a combination of medication and psychotherapy is the most effective treatment.

Many mental health care providers use "talk" treatments to help children and adolescents with depression. A child or adolescent in need of treatment or services and his or her family may need a plan of care based on the severity and duration of symptoms. Optimally, this plan is developed with the family, service providers, and a service coordinator, who is referred to as a case manager. Whenever possible, the child or adolescent is involved in decisions. This "system of care" is designed to improve the child's ability to function in all areas of life--at home, at school, and in the community.

What Can Parents Do for Their Children with Depression?

  • Make careful notes about the behaviors that concern them. Note how long the behaviors have been going on, how often they occur, and how severe they seem.
  • Make an appointment with a mental health professional or the child's doctor for evaluation and diagnosis.
  • Get accurate information from libraries, hotlines, or other sources.
  • Ask questions about treatments and services.
  • Talk to other families in their community.
  • Find family network organizations.

Important messages about children's and adolescents' mental health

  • Every child's mental health is important.
  • Many children have mental health problems.
  • These problems are real and painful and can be severe.
  • Mental health problems can be recognized and treated.
  • Caring families and communities working together can help.

Reference: The Substance Abuse & Mental Services Administration

Last updated May 2017

This information is for general educational uses only. It may not apply to you and your personal medical needs. This information should not be used in place of a visit, call, consultation with or the advice of your physician or health care professional.

Communicate promptly with your physician or other health care professional with any health-related questions or concerns.

Be sure to follow specific instructions given to you by your physician or health care professional.

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