Child and Adolescent Depression

Most people feel sad sometimes and sad feelings are a normal part of life. However, a child or adolescent who feels sad too often, too much, or for too long, may have an emotional disorder called depression.

What Are Some Signs of Depression in Children and Adolescents?

Children and adolescents may express a depressive disorder by being sad, irritable, or extremely sensitive. Some signs of depression include:

  • Persistent feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness, guilt, or low self-esteem
  • Decreased interest in activities previously enjoyed
  • Lack of energy and motivation, and persistent boredom
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Significant changes in appetite or body weight
  • Social isolation or poor communicatioN
  • Frequent thoughts of death, hurting oneself, or suicide
  • Frequent physical complaints, such as headaches, muscle aches, stomachaches, or fatigue
  • Increased anger, irritability, hostility, or risky behaviors
  • Outbursts of crying, shouting, complaining, or unexplained irritability
  • Frequent absences from school or poor performance in school
  • Alcohol and drug abuse

Children and adolescents may have difficulty in identifying and describing their emotions and feelings. They may not yet know how to express themselves with words. They may show how they feel through their behavior. Adults sometimes misinterpret these behaviors as acting out or disobedience, but they may be signs of depression.

There are other health and mental health conditions that have symptoms similar to those of depression. And it is also possible that a child may have depression and another disorder, such as anxiety disorder or learning disabilities. Therefore, it is important to have a thorough evaluation by a specialist for accurate diagnosis.

What Are the Causes of Depressive Disorder?

The precise cause of most mental disorders is not fully understood. In general, mental disorders result from a combination of genetic and other biological factors, and nurturing and other environmental factors. The influence between biology and environment is complicated. The brain influences behavior, and experience effects the development of the brain.

Depression runs in families, suggesting that a biological vulnerability can be inherited. Additional factors, possibly stresses at home, school, or work, and stressful life events such as traumas, losses, or chronic illness also are key factors.

How Is Child and Adolescent Depression Treated?

Depressed children and adolescents are not personally weak and they do not have a character flaw. Their feelings of depression are very real and it is unrealistic to expect them to just "cheer up." Depressed children and adolescents need treatment and their depression is treatable.

In therapy, studies show that cognitive-behavioral or interpersonal therapy is helpful for people with depression. These two therapies help the youth focus on disturbed personal relationships and negative styles of thinking that are often associated with depression. Other treatments may include group and family therapies. There is growing research regarding the use of medication to treat childhood depression.

How Can I Get Help?

First, consult your child's doctor. Ask for a complete health examination of your child. Tell the doctor about the behaviors that concern you. Ask your doctor if further evaluation or treatment by a specialist in child behavioral problems is needed.

You may also want to contact your child's school. Teachers and school counselors may also be able to help.

Your child may be eligible to receive mental health services from the County Mental Health Plan. The County has a toll free number available 24 hours a day. They will be able to talk with you in your own language, and answer questions about your child's behavior. Their services and phone numbers are listed in the county government pages of your local phone book.

Where Can I Get More Information?

National Institute of Mental Health
(888) 826-9438

National Foundation for Depressive Illness, Inc.
(800) 239-1265

National Mental Health Association
(800) 969-6642