Depression in Children and Teenagers

Depression is an illness. Many people have depression at some time in their lives. About 3 percent of children and 8 percent of teenagers in America have depression. Children and teens are at higher risk if they:

  • Lose someone close to them
  • Are under stress
  • Have a chronic illness
  • Have relationship problems
  • Have parents with a depressive illness
  • Have attention or learning disorders

Depression can be “triggered” by a stressful life event (like a problem or a major change). But it also can be caused by changes in the brain, even when there is no stressful event.

Symptoms

A child or teen who has 5 or more of the following symptoms for 2 weeks or more may be depressed. It’s important to note that many children will have some of these symptoms from time to time. But if a child has 5 or more symptoms, and they persist every day for more than 2 weeks, you should seek help. Talk through your concerns with your child’s doctor. If he or she does not address your concerns, seek help elsewhere.

  • Depressed mood — sad, mad, irritable, or bored most of the day, nearly every day
  • Loss of interest in friends and other activities
  • Change in appetite or weight
  • Trouble falling asleep (insomnia) or sleeping too much (hypersomnia)
  • Restlessness
  • Fatigue, loss of energy
  • Poor self-esteem, guilt
  • Over-reaction to criticism
  • Problems with authority
  • Missed school, poor school performance
  • Decreased ability to think or concentrate
  • Difficulty making decisions
  • Frequent complaints of head aches or stomach aches
  • Anger, rage
  • Drug and/or alcohol abuse
  • Thoughts of death or suicide

Almost one-third of young children with depression have hallucinations or delusions. They may hear voices telling them that they are worthless or that the world is coming to an end. These symptoms are linked to more severe depression.

Diagnosis

There is no blood test or diagnostic test for depression. Instead, the doctor will ask about your child’s symptoms and medical history. The doctor may ask:

  • If your child uses alcohol and drugs
  • If he or she has thoughts of death or suicide
  • If you have family members who have or have had depression
  • About your child’s sleep patterns

This will help him or her find out about your child’s speech, thoughts, memory, and mood. A physical exam and other tests can help rule out other causes of symptoms.

Treatment

A lot still remains to be learned about the causes of and treatments for depression. But effective treatments are available today. Depression in children and teens often is treated with a combination of therapy and medicine.

Talk therapy (sometimes called “psychotherapy”) helps people learn better ways to deal with problems. There are many types of talk therapy, but only a few are designed to treat depression. A therapist will talk to your child to help find any problems and ways to deal with them. Talk therapy for depression usually lasts 6 months or less.

Some therapies are meant to help depressed children or teens change how they view problems. Other therapies deal more with changing behavior and interaction patterns with others. When paired with medicine, this treatment has proved very effective.

There are different classes of medicines used to treat depression in children. It may take trying a few different medicines to find the one that works best for your child.

Evaluations, treatment, and other services for depression are offered through the UPMC Behavioral Health Network. To find out more or to make an appointment, call toll-free 1-877-624-4100.

Resources

For more information on depression, visit these websites:

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