By: Dr. Kristi
Children are generally thought of as being happy, carefree souls with few concerns, but this isn’t always the case. Many people don’t realize that depression can occur in children and adolescents. It is estimated that nearly 15 percent of children and adolescents have some symptoms of depression and a full 5 percent meet the full criteria for major depression.
Though the diagnostic criteria for depression is identical for adults and children diagnosing depression in children can be complicated because they may have a difficult time describing how or what they are feeling. The way they express their symptoms physically or through language may also vary as well. Diagnosis of depression in children is important since it can negatively affect school performance, family relationships and may even lead to suicide.
Symptoms of Depression in Children
Signs of depression in children can be subtle. Depression can manifest as a child not wanting to go to school or engage in activities they previously enjoyed. Not only can their eating habits change, but they may seem angry, irritable or withdrawn. Problems with falling asleep and generalized aches and pains can be less obvious signs of depression in children.
Depression in a child shouldn’t be taken lightly. It’s a serious medical illness just like high blood pressure or diabetes. It’s generally caused by an imbalance of brain chemicals known as neurotransmitters and can have a genetic component in some cases. A genetic tendency towards developing depression can be triggered by a stressful or traumatic event such as losing a parent, physical illness, abuse (physical or emotional) or the breakup of a relationship. In teens, girls are twice as likely to be affected as boys.
Treatment of Childhood Depression
What about treatment of childhood depression? Children and adolescents with depression should be treated primarily with counseling or cognitive therapy. When counseling is inadequate, the use of antidepressant medications can be helpful in combination with counseling. One class of antidepressants called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRI) has shown some effectiveness for treating depressed children and adolescents. The medications are neither addictive nor a cure for depression. Instead they help to restore balance to the brain chemicals out of balance.
A serious concern expressed by parents is whether antidepressants can, themselves, cause suicide. Because this question has not been fully answered these medications carry special warning labels about the possible risk of suicide attempts when used in depressed children and adolescents. It is important to remember that depression itself makes people more likely to try to harm themselves or others.
It is essential that your depressed child or adolescent be carefully monitored for signs of suicidal behavior regardless of whether they are on medications or not. Your mental health counselor or doctor can review these warning signs with you. Should you notice your depressed child displaying these signs, immediately notify your child’s doctor or take your child to the nearest emergency room for evaluation.
Early Treatment Needed
Early treatment for depression has been shown to improve long-term outcomes, so get help for your child as soon as possible. Duration of treatment depends on the number of previous episodes of depression and on the individual child. Whatever you do, get help. Your child is depending on you.
More detailed information on childhood depression at Kids Health
For help with children’s health see Child Health at Child n’Parent .
Dr. Kristi is a medical doctor with a concentration in family practice. She also has an undergraduate degree in both Biology and Psychology as well a master’s in Clinical Pathology. She has been a published writer for the last two years.