Depression is the most common mental health problem in the United States. Each year it affects 17 million people of all ages, races, and economic backgrounds. As many as 1 in every 33 children may have depression; in teens, that number may be as high as 1 in 8.
So it's wise for parents and caregivers to learn about depression and how to help if your child, or a child you know, seems depressed.
Depression isn't just bad moods and occasional melancholy. It's not just feeling down or sad, either. These feelings are normal in kids, especially during the teen years. Even when major disappointments and setbacks make people feel sad and angry, the negative feelings usually ease with time.
But when a depressive state, or mood, lingers for a long time — weeks, months, or even longer — and limits a person's ability to function normally, it can be diagnosed as depression.
Types of depression include: major depression, dysthymia, adjustment disorder with depressed mood, seasonal affective disorder, and bipolar disorder (or manic depression). All of these can affect kids and teenagers.
In kids, depression can appear as "bad moods" or irritability that lasts for a long time, even if a child doesn't acknowledge being sad.
Major depression is a serious condition characterized by a lasting sad mood, feelings of worthlessness or guilt, and the inability to feel pleasure or happiness. Major depression typically interferes with day-to-day functioning, like eating and sleeping. Kids with major depression feel depressed almost every day.
Dysthymia may be diagnosed if sadness or irritability is not as severe as with major depression, but continues for a year or longer. Kids with dysthymia often feel "down in the dumps." They can have low self-esteem, feel hopeless, and even have problems sleeping and eating.
Dysthymia does not severely interfere with day-to-day functioning, but the "down mood" is a pervasive part of the child's world. (And at least 10% of those with dysthymic disorder go on to develop major depression.)
Bipolar disorder, another type of mood disturbance, is marked by episodes of low-energy depression (sadness and hopelessness) and high-energy mania (irritability and explosive temper). Bipolar disorder may affect as many as 1% to 2% of kids. More than 2 million adults have bipolar disorder, which often develops in the late teen years and early adulthood.
Research in kids is not comprehensive, but experts believe that kids and teens with bipolar disorder can have a number of problems, including attention deficit disorders, oppositional behavior disorders, anxiety, and irritability in addition to changes in mood from depression to mania.
Depression usually isn't caused by one event or reason. In most cases, it's the result of several factors, which vary from person to person.
Depression can be caused by lowered levels of neurotransmitters (chemicals that carry signals through the nervous system) in the brain, which limits a person's ability to feel good. Genetics are likely involved as depression can run in families, so someone with a close relative who has depression may be more likely to have it.
Significant life events (such as the death of a loved one, a divorce, a move to a new area, and even a breakup with a girlfriend or boyfriend) can bring on symptoms of depression. Stress also can be a factor, and because the teen years are a time of emotional and social turmoil, things that are difficult for anyone to handle can be devastating to a teen.
Also, chronic illness can contribute to depression, as can the side effects of certain medicines or infections.
Kids with depression have described themselves as feeling hopeless about everything or feeling that nothing is worth the effort. They honestly believe that they are "no good," that their world is a difficult place, and that they're helpless to do anything about it.
But for an accurate diagnosis of major depression to be made, a detailed clinical evaluation must be done by a medical or mental health professional (such as a psychologist or psychiatrist).
To meet criteria for a diagnosis, five or more of these symptoms must be present for longer than 2 weeks:
For a diagnosis of dysthymia, someone must have two or more of these symptoms almost all the time for at least a year:
Kids and teens who are depressed are more likely to use alcohol and drugs than those who aren't. Because these can momentarily allow a person to forget about the depression, they seem like easy fixes. But they can make someone with depression feel even worse.
If you think your child has symptoms of depression, it's important to take action. Talk with your child and your doctor or others who know your child well. Many parents dismiss their concerns, thinking they'll go away, or avoid acting because they may feel guilty or prefer to solve family problems privately.
For a long time, it was commonly believed that children did not get depressed and that teenagers all went through a period of "storm and stress," so many kids and teens went untreated for depression. Now more is known about childhood depression and experts say it's important to get kids help as soon as a problem is noticed.
Parents often feel responsible for things going on with their kids, but parents don't cause depression. However, it is true that parental separation, illness, death, or other separation can cause short-term problems for kids, and sometimes can trigger a problem with longer term depression. This means that if your family is going through something stressful, it's probably helpful to turn to a counselor, therapist, or other expert for support.
It's also important to remind your child that you're there for support. Say this over and over again — kids with depression need to hear it a lot because sometimes they feel unworthy of love and attention.
Remember, kids who are depressed may see the world very negatively because their experiences are shaped by their depression. They might act like they don't want help or might not even know what they are really experiencing.
The good news is that professionals can help. Depression can be successfully treated in more than 80% of the people who become depressed. But if it goes untreated, it can be deadly — it is a major risk factor for suicidal behavior.
Depression can be treated with psychotherapy, medicine, or a combination of therapy and medicine. A psychiatrist can prescribe medicine, and although it may take a few tries to find the right drug, most people who follow their prescribed regimen eventually begin to feel better.
Psychotherapy focuses on the causes of the depression and works to help change negative thoughts and find ways to allow someone to feel better. Cognitive behavioral therapy has been shown to be very effective in treating depression, as well as anxious feelings that may come with it. Depression can be caused by and maintained with negative thinking, and this type of therapy, when given by a trained professional, can be extremely effective in helping fight it.
Your first consultation should be with your child's pediatrician, who probably will do a complete examination to rule out physical illness.
If depression is suspected, the doctor may refer you to a:
When it comes to managing your child's depression, all of these health professionals can help. The important thing is that your child feels comfortable with the person. If it's not a good fit, find another.
Your child's teacher, guidance counselor, or school psychologist also might be able to help. These professionals have your child's welfare at heart and all information shared with them during therapy is kept confidential.
Don't put off your child's treatment. Early detection and diagnosis are key in treating kids with depression.
A child or adolescent psychiatrist or psychologist can perform a complete evaluation and start a treatment plan that may include counseling, medicine, or both. The counselor might prescribe some sort of group counseling where the family works with the child in therapy sessions.
Depending on your child's age and maturity, it may be beneficial for him or her to participate in treatment decisions.
Most parents think that it's their job to ensure the happiness of their kids. When your child's depressed, you may feel guilty because you can't cheer him or her up. You also may think that your child is suffering because of something you did or didn't do. This isn't true. If you're struggling with guilt, frustration, or anger, consider counseling for yourself. In the long run, this can only help both you and your child.
Other ways to help:
Depression can be frightening and frustrating for your child, you, and your entire family. With the proper treatment and your help, though, your child can start to feel better and go on to enjoy the teen and adult years.
Reviewed by: D'Arcy Lyness, PhD
Date reviewed: March 2015
|National Mental Health Association (NMHA) NMHA works to improve the mental health of all Americans through advocacy, education, research, and service.|
|American Foundation for Suicide Prevention This group is dedicated to advancing the knowledge of suicide and the ability to prevent it.|
|American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP) AACAP offers up-to-date information on child and adolescent development and issues.|
|Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance The mission of this group is to educate patients, families, professionals, and the public about depressive and manic-depressive illnesses.|
|American Psychological Association (APA) The APA provides information and education about a variety of mental health issues for people of all ages.|
|Anxiety Disorders Association of America (ADAA) The ADAA promotes the prevention and cure of anxiety disorders and works to improve the lives of all people who have them.|
|Center for Mental Health Services (CMHS) CMHS is a federal agency that provides information about mental health to users of mental health services, their families, the general public, policy makers, providers, and the media.|
|Finding Low-Cost Mental Health Care If you need mental health care but don't think you can afford it, you're not alone. Get tips on finding low-cost or free mental health care in this article for teens.|
|Anxiety Disorders Anxiety is a normal part of growing up, and all kids experience it. But when it becomes extreme, it can interfere with a child's overall happiness.|
|My Friend Is Talking About Suicide. What Should I Do? Have you heard that people who talk about suicide won't go through with it? That's not true. Read this article to learn some of the other warning signs that a person is considering suicide.|
|Bipolar Disorder Someone who has bipolar disorder goes back and forth between feeling full of energy and ideas to feeling very low. Read more about it in this article for kids.|
|Seasonal Affective Disorder A person with SAD typically experiences symptoms of depression as winter approaches and daylight hours become shorter.|
|Taking Your Child to a Therapist Kids, like adults, can often benefit from therapy – but there are many important things to consider as you look for the right therapist.|
|A to Z: Bipolar Disorder Learn about depressive disorders, mental illnesses, and conditions that affect moods and the brain.|
|Talking to Parents About Depression If you feel depressed, you need to reach out for help and support. Read our tips for teens on talking to parents about depression.|
|Word! Depression It's normal to feel sad sometimes, but if you feel that way for a long time, and you never feel happy, it's called depression.|
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|Depression Depression is very common. For more information about depression and feeling better, check out this article.|
|When Depression Is Severe Severe depression can cloud a person's thinking and lead some people to think that life isn't worth living. But severe depression can be treated. Find out what to do and how to get help in this article for teens.|
|Why Do People Get Depressed? There's no one reason why people get depressed - many different things can play a role. Find out more about the things that can trigger depression.|
|Posttraumatic Stress Disorder Sometimes after experiencing a traumatic event, a person has a strong and lingering reaction known as posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Getting treatment and support can make all the difference.|
|Death and Grief If someone close to you has died, you probably feel overwhelmed with grief. Read about some things that might help you cope.|
|Getting Help for Intense Grief Going through grief and loss is never easy. But in some situations, grief can feel especially intense – even overwhelming. Find out what to do in this article for teens.|
|Going to a Therapist Getting help with emotions or stress is the same as getting help with a medical problem like asthma or diabetes. This article explains how therapy works and how it can help with problems.|
|Seasonal Affective Disorder Seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is a form of depression that affects some people and appears at the same time each year.|
|Stress & Coping Center Visit our stress and coping center for advice on how to handle stress, including different stressful situations.|
|Suicide We all feel overwhelmed by difficult emotions or situations sometimes. If someone is seriously depressed, suicidal thinking is a real concern. Here are warning signs and ways to get help.|
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|Cutting Cutting isn't new, but this form of self-injury has been in the spotlight more in recent years. Learn more about it and ways to help a teen who cuts.|
|Cutting It can be hard to understand, but people who cut themselves sometimes do it because it actually makes them feel better. They are overflowing with emotions - like sadness, depression, or anger - that they have trouble expressing.|
|Helping Teens Who Cut Cutting isn't new, but this form of self-injury has been in the spotlight more in recent years. Learn more how to help a teen who cuts.|
|Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) Kids and teens who live through a traumatic event can develop posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Healing is possible with the help of professional counseling and support from loved ones.|
|5 Ways to Fight Depression It's important to take action against depression - it doesn't just go away on its own. In addition to getting professional help, here are 5 ways to feel better.|
|About Teen Suicide When a teen commits suicide, everyone is affected. The reasons behind a suicide or attempted suicide can be complex, but often there are warning signs.|
|Going to a Psychologist, Psychiatrist, or Therapist What's it like to go to a psychologist, psychiatrist, or therapist? Find out in this article for kids.|
|Why Am I So Sad? Feeling down? Got the blues? Everyone feels sad sometimes. Find out more in this article for kids.|
|Bipolar Disorder Bipolar disorders are one of several medical conditions called depressive disorders that affect the way a person's brain functions. Find out more about bipolar disorder.|
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