Depression in Children and Teens

Topic Overview

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This topic covers depression in children and teens. For information about depression in adults, see the topic Depression. For information about depression with episodes of high energy (mania), see the topic Bipolar Disorder in Children and Teens.

What is depression in children and teens?

Depression is a serious mood disorder that can take the joy from a child’s life. It is normal for a child to be moody or sad from time to time. You can expect these feelings after the death of a pet or a move to a new city. But if these feelings last for weeks or months, they may be a sign of depression.

Experts used to think that only adults could get depression. Now we know that even a young child can have depression that needs treatment to improve. As many as 3 in 100 young children and 9 in 100 teens have serious depression.1

Still, many children don't get the treatment they need. This is partly because it can be hard to tell the difference between depression and normal moodiness. Also, depression may not look the same in a child as in an adult.

If you are worried about your child, learn more about the symptoms in children. Talk to your child to see how he or she is feeling. If you think your child is depressed, talk to your doctor or a counselor. The sooner a child gets treatment, the sooner he or she will start to feel better.

What are the symptoms?

A child may be depressed if he or she:

  • Is grumpy, sad, or bored most of the time.
  • Does not take pleasure in things he or she used to enjoy.

A child who is depressed may also:

  • Lose or gain weight.
  • Sleep too much or too little.
  • Feel hopeless, worthless, or guilty.
  • Have trouble concentrating, thinking, or making decisions.
  • Think about death or suicide a lot.

The symptoms of depression are often overlooked at first. It can be hard to see that symptoms are all part of the same problem.

Also, the symptoms may be different depending on how old the child is.

  • Very young children may lack energy and become withdrawn. They may show little emotion, seem to feel hopeless, and have trouble sleeping.
  • Grade-school children may have a lot of headaches or stomachaches. They may lose interest in friends and activities that they once liked. Some children with severe depression may see or hear things that aren't there (hallucinate) or have false beliefs (delusions).
  • Teens may sleep a lot or move or speak more slowly than usual. Teens with severe depression may hallucinate or have delusions.

Depression can range from mild to severe. A child who feels a little “down” most of the time for a year or more may have a mild, ongoing form of depression called dysthymia (say “dis-THY-mee-uh”). In its most severe form, depression can cause a child to lose hope and want to die.

Whether depression is mild or severe, there are treatments that can help.

What causes depression?

Just what causes depression is not well understood. But it is linked to an imbalance of brain chemicals that affect mood. Things that may cause these chemicals to get out of balance include:

  • Stressful events, such as changing schools, going through a divorce, or having a death in the family.
  • Some medicines, such as steroids or narcotics for pain relief.
  • Family history. In some children, depression seems to be inherited.

How is depression diagnosed?

To diagnose depression, a doctor may do a physical exam and ask questions about the child's past health. You may be asked to fill out a form about your child’s symptoms. The doctor may ask your child questions to learn more about how the child thinks, acts, and feels.

Some diseases can cause symptoms that look like depression. So the child may have tests to help rule out physical problems, such as a low thyroid level or anemia.

It is common for children with depression to have other problems too, such as anxiety, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), or an eating disorder. The doctor may ask questions about these problems to help your child get the right diagnosis and treatment.

How is it treated?

Usually one of the first steps in treating depression is education for the child and his or her family. Teaching both the child and the family about depression can be a big help. It makes them less likely to blame themselves for the problem. Sometimes it can help other family members see that they are also depressed.

Counseling may help the child feel better. The type of counseling will depend on the age of the child. For young children, play therapy may be best. Older children and teens may benefit from cognitive-behavioral therapy. This type of counseling can help them change negative thoughts that make them feel bad.

Medicine may be an option if the child is very depressed. Combining antidepressant medicine with counseling often works best. A child with severe depression may need to be treated in the hospital.

There are some things you can do at home to help your child start to feel better.

  • Urge your child to get regular exercise, eat a healthy diet, and get enough sleep.
  • See that your child takes any medicine as prescribed and goes to all follow-up appointments.
  • Make time to talk and listen to your child. Ask how he or she is feeling. Express your love and support.
  • Remind your child that things will get better in time.

What should you know about antidepressant medicines?

Antidepressant medicines often work well for children who are depressed, but there are some important things you should know about them.

  • Children who take antidepressants should be watched closely. These medicines may increase the risk that a child will think about or try suicide, especially in the first few weeks of use. If your child takes an antidepressant, learn the warning signs of suicide, and get help right away if you see any of them. Common warning signs include:
    • Talking, drawing, or writing about death.
    • Giving away belongings.
    • Withdrawing from family and friends.
    • Having a way to do it, such as a gun or pills.
  • Your child may start to feel better after 1 to 3 weeks of taking antidepressant medicine. But it can take as many as 6 to 8 weeks to see more improvement. Make sure your child takes antidepressants as prescribed and keeps taking them so they have time to work.
  • A child may need to try several different antidepressants to find one that works. If you notice any questions or have concerns about the medicine, or if you do not notice any improvement by 3 weeks, talk to your child's doctor.
  • Do not let a child suddenly stop taking antidepressants. This could be dangerous. Your doctor can help you taper off the dose slowly to prevent problems.

Frequently Asked Questions

Learning about depression in children and teens:

Being diagnosed:

Getting treatment:

Ongoing concerns:

Living with depression in children and teens:

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  Depression: Dealing with medicine side effects
  Depression: Taking antidepressants safely

Cause

Depression is thought to be caused by an imbalance of chemicals called neurotransmitters that send messages between nerve cells in your brain. Some of these chemicals, such as serotonin, help regulate mood. If these mood-influencing chemicals get out of balance, depression or other mood disorders can result. Experts have not yet identified why neurotransmitters become imbalanced. They believe a change can occur as a response to stress or illness, but a change may also occur with no obvious trigger.

There are several factors known to increase the chances that a young person may become depressed.

  • Depression runs in families. Children and teens who have a parent with depression are 3 times more likely to develop depression than children with parents who are not depressed.2 Experts believe that both inherited traits (genetics) as well as living with a parent who is depressed can cause depression.
  • Depression in children and teens may be linked to stress, social problems, and unresolved family conflict. It can also be linked to traumatic events, such as violence, abuse, or neglect.
  • Children or teens who have long-term or serious medical conditions, learning problems, or behavior problems are more likely to develop depression.
  • Some medicines can trigger depression, such as steroids or narcotics for pain relief. As soon as the medicine is stopped, symptoms usually disappear.

Symptoms

Depression in a child or teen may occur suddenly or develop gradually. Your child may seem more irritable than sad or may feel bored or hopeless. It is common for others to notice that a depressed child's body movements are slow, restless, or agitated. Your child may be self-critical or feel that others are unfairly critical of him or her.

The symptoms of depression are often subtle at first. It can be hard to recognize that symptoms may be connected and that your child might have depression.

Children who are depressed may have the following symptoms:

  • Irritability
  • Temper tantrums
  • Unexplained aches and pains, such as headaches or stomach pain
  • Difficulty thinking and making decisions
  • Trouble sleeping, or sleeping too much
  • Changes in eating habits that lead to weight gain or loss or not making expected weight gains
  • Low self-esteem
  • Feelings of guilt and hopelessness
  • Constant tiredness or lack of energy
  • Social withdrawal, such as lack of interest in friends
  • Thinking about death or feeling suicidal

It's important to watch for warning signs of suicide in your child or teen. These signs may change with age. Warning signs of suicide in children and teens may include preoccupation with death or suicide or a recent breakup of a relationship.

Many children who are depressed have symptoms of anxiety, such as worrying too much or fearing separation from a parent. Sometimes these symptoms appear before depression is diagnosed.

Other less common symptoms may occur in severely depressed children, such as hearing voices that aren't there (hallucinations) or having false but firmly held beliefs (delusions). Hallucinations are more common in young children, while delusions are more common in teens.

Telling the difference between normal moodiness and symptoms of depression can be difficult. Occasional feelings of sadness or irritability are normal. They allow the child to process grief or cope with the challenges of life. For example, grieving (bereavement) is a normal response to loss, such as the death of a family member or even the death a pet, loss of a friendship, or parents' divorce. After a severe loss, a child may remain sad for a longer period of time. But when these emotions do not go away or begin to interfere with the young person's life, the child may develop signs of a mood disorder such as depression or dysthymic disorder (long-term, mild depression), which requires treatment.

Some children who are first diagnosed with depression are later diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Children or teens with bipolar disorder have extreme mood swings between depression and bouts of mania (very high energy, agitation, or irritability). Depression can have symptoms that are similar to those caused by other conditions.

It can be difficult to tell the difference between bipolar disorder and depression. It is common for children with bipolar disorder to first be diagnosed with only depression and later to be diagnosed with bipolar disorder after a first manic episode. Although depression is part of the condition, bipolar disorder requires different treatment than depression alone. Like depression, bipolar disorder runs in families, so be sure to tell your doctor if your child has a family history of bipolar disorder. (For more information on bipolar disorder, see the topic Bipolar Disorder in Children and Teens.)

What Happens

Depression in a child or teen may first appear as irritability, sadness, or sudden, unexplained crying. He or she may lose interest in activities enjoyed in the past or may feel unloved and hopeless. He or she may have problems in school and become withdrawn or defiant.

Often a child who is depressed will have other disorders along with depression, such as an anxiety disorder, a behavior disorder like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), an eating disorder, or a learning disorder. These problems may occur before a young person becomes depressed. Some children with depression develop serious behavior problems (conduct disorder), often after becoming depressed. If your child develops one of these disorders, it may require treatment along with depression.

A child or teen with depression is much more likely to use drugs, alcohol, or cigarettes than a young person who is not depressed. About 30% of teens will develop alcohol or drug use problems along with depression.3 These problems can make depression more difficult to treat, can increase the length of time before treatment is successful, and increases the risk of suicide. Early diagnosis and treatment of depression and good communication with your child can help prevent substance abuse. For more information about substance abuse in young people, see the topic Teen Alcohol and Drug Abuse.

Children and teens with depression are also at a higher risk for developing problems such as:

  • Poor school or job performance.
  • Problems in relationships with peers and family members.
  • Early pregnancy.
  • Physical illness.

For severe depression, your child may need to be hospitalized, especially if he or she is out of touch with reality (psychotic) or having thoughts of suicide.

A depressive episode lasts an average of 8 months.4 Even with successful treatment, as many as 40% of children with depression will have another episode within a few years.5 During treatment for depression, make sure that your child takes medicines and attends counseling appointments as directed, even if he or she feels better. A common cause of relapse is stopping treatment too soon.

To prevent another episode of depression, learn to recognize early warning signs, and seek diagnosis and treatment right away if symptoms develop. A balanced diet, exercise, and a good social support system may also help prevent depression.

Suicide and depression

It's important to watch for warning signs of suicide in your child or teen. These signs may change with age. Warning signs of suicide in children and teens may include preoccupation with death or suicide or a recent breakup of a relationship. Teens with depression are at particularly high risk for suicide and suicide attempts. In the United States, approximately 2,000 teens commit suicide each year.6 While teen girls attempt suicide almost twice as often as teen boys, boys are more likely to succeed because girls usually use less lethal means and survive the attempt. Suicide attempts in children younger than age 12 are uncommon.

A young person is at increased risk for suicide attempts if he or she has:

  • Current suicidal thoughts.
  • Other mental health or disruptive disorders, such as conduct disorder or substance abuse.
  • Impulsive or aggressive behaviors.
  • Feelings of hopelessness.
  • A history of past suicide attempts.
  • A family history of suicidal behavior or mood disorders.
  • A history of being exposed to family violence or abuse.
  • Access to firearms or other potentially lethal means.

You should carefully watch for signs of suicidal behavior if your child has recently:

  • Broken up with a girlfriend or boyfriend.
  • Had disciplinary troubles in school or with the law.
  • Had problems with poor grades or difficulty learning.
  • Had family problems.
  • Had substance abuse problems.
  • Started, stopped, or changed doses of an antidepressant medicine.

If your child is suicidal, call 911 or other emergency services immediately.

What Increases Your Risk

Several things increase a young person's chance of developing depression. These include:2, 7

  • Having a parent or immediate family member who is depressed. This is the most important risk factor for depression. Children or teens who have a parent with depression are 3 times more likely to develop depression.
  • Having been depressed before, especially if depression first occurred at an early age.
  • Having a long-term medical condition such as diabetes or epilepsy.
  • Having another mental disorder, such as conduct disorder or an anxiety disorder.
  • Having a family member or close friend die.
  • Being physically or sexually abused.
  • Having problems with alcohol or drug abuse.

Other risk factors for depression include:

  • Being a girl in early puberty. Until puberty, boys and girls have an equal risk of developing depression. After puberty and as adults, females are twice as likely as males to become depressed.
  • Being exposed to family conflict.
  • Not having good social relationships with peers.
  • Being a bully or a victim of bullying.8

When To Call a Doctor

Call 911 or other emergency services immediately if:

  • Your child makes threats or attempts to harm himself or herself or another person, or shows other warning signs of suicide.
  • Your child hears voices (has auditory hallucinations).
  • You are a young person and you feel you cannot stop from harming yourself or someone else.

Watchful Waiting

Taking a wait-and-see approach, called watchful waiting, may be appropriate if your child has feelings of grief, sadness, or melancholy.

But you should contact a doctor right away if symptoms of depression last more than 2 weeks or if your child's symptoms are interfering with his or her normal daily functioning.

The warning signs of suicide change with age. Warning signs of suicide in children and teens may include preoccupation with death or suicide or a recent breakup of a relationship.

Who To See

Treatment for depression may involve professional counseling, medicines, education about depression for your child and your family, or a combination of these. It is important that your child establish a long-term and comfortable relationship with the care providers for the treatment of depression.

Your child may be diagnosed and treated by more than one health professional, including a:

Professional counseling (or psychotherapy) for depression can be provided by a:

Other health professionals who also may be trained in counseling include a:

To prepare for your appointment, see the topic Making the Most of Your Appointment.

Exams and Tests

Your doctor or another health professional will evaluate and diagnose depression in your child by asking questions about your child's medical history and conducting tests to find out if symptoms are caused by something other than depression. Your child may be given a physical exam or blood tests to rule out conditions such as hypothyroidism or anemia. Your child may be asked to complete a mental health assessment, which tests his or her ability to think, reason, and remember.

You may be asked to help complete a pediatric symptom checklist, a brief screening questionnaire that helps to diagnose depression or other psychological problems in children. Also, your child may be asked to take a short written or verbal test for depression.

Sometimes a more thorough evaluation may be needed to fully assess your child's depression. Interviews may be conducted with the parents or with other people who know the young person well. Specific information may be obtained from the child's teachers or from social service workers.

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends screening for depression in all children ages 12 to 18.9

Treatment Overview

Treatment for depression in young people is similar to treatment for depression in adults and includes counseling and medicines. Although antidepressant medicines can be effective in treating depression, the safety and long-term effects of these medicines in children are not yet fully understood. But for many young people with depression, experts believe the benefits of the medicines outweigh the risks.

Less than one-third of children or teens with depression receive treatment.10 This may be due, in part, to the old belief that young people do not get depression or that feeling depressed is normal for their age. Also, teens often do not seek help for depression, because they may think feeling bad is normal, they may blame something else (or themselves) for their symptoms, or they may not know where to go for help. Tell your child to ask for help if he or she feels bad, and let your child know who to go to for help with depression or other problems.

Initial treatment

The type of treatment your child requires depends on whether it is his or her first episode of depression, the severity of the depression, and issues related to the cause of the depression, such as family conflict or academic problems. If your child is suicidal or is severely depressed and is out of touch with reality (psychotic) or unable to function, a stay in the hospital may be needed.

Treatment of depression in children and teens generally includes professional counseling, medicines, and education about depression for your child and your family.

Professional counseling for depression may include:

Medicines used to treat childhood depression include:

  • Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (called SSRIs), such as fluoxetine (Prozac). SSRIs are the medicines most often used for childhood or teen depression. Fluoxetine is currently the only SSRI approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for use in children and teens. Escitalopram oxalate is also approved for use in teens. But other SSRIs are sometimes used.
  • Atypical antidepressant medications, such as bupropion (for example, Wellbutrin) In some cases, these may be used to treat childhood or teen depression.
  • Monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs), such as phenelzine (Nardil). MAOIs are rarely given due to potentially serious side effects and food restrictions.
  • Tricyclic antidepressants such as amitriptyline. Tricyclic antidepressants have been used in the past for childhood depression. But recent studies have found limited evidence that these medicines are effective.11 Tricyclics also carry the risk of overdose and other serious consequences, such as heart problems.

A combination of fluoxetine (Prozac, for example) and cognitive-behavioral therapy often works best.12

Click here to view a Decision Point. Should my child take medicine to treat depression?

The FDA has approved the use of fluoxetine (Prozac, for example) for the treatment of depression in children and teens. But other medicines that are used to treat adult depression may also be tried to treat childhood depression, even though these medicines have not been officially approved for children by the FDA.

Before prescribing medicine to treat depression, your doctor will check your child for possible suicidal thoughts by asking a few questions. See a list of questions your doctor may ask your child.

The FDA has issued advisories stating that people who are taking antidepressants for depression, along with their family members and their doctors, should watch for warning signs of suicide.

Education of your child and family memberscan be provided by a doctor either informally or in family therapy. Some of the most important things that your child and family members can learn include:

  • Knowing how to make sure a child is following a treatment plan, such as taking medicine correctly and going to counseling appointments.
  • Learning ways to reduce stress caused by living with someone who has depression.
  • Knowing the signs of a relapse and what to do to prevent depression from recurring.
  • Knowing the signs of suicidal behavior, how to evaluate their seriousness, and how to respond.
  • Learning how to identify signs of a manic episode, which is a bout of extremely high mood and energy, or irritability that is a sign of bipolar disorder.
  • Seeking treatment if you are a parent with depression.

Home treatment is an important part of treating depression. It includes:

  • Getting regular exercise, such as vigorous playing, swimming, or walking, to help reduce stress.
  • Eating a healthy, balanced diet.
  • Getting enough sleep regularly. (Children and teenagers need more sleep than adults.)
  • Avoiding the use of alcohol, tobacco, or drugs.

Ongoing treatment

Ongoing treatment depends on how severe your child's symptoms are and whether the symptoms are interfering with his or her daily activities and quality of life. Treatment includes professional counseling and may include long-term treatment with medicines.

Some children and teens do not respond to the first medicine given and may need to try several different medicines to find relief from their symptoms. Both medicines and professional counseling may be the most effective treatment, especially for children with long-term (chronic) depression that has lasted more than a year.4

An important part of ongoing treatment is making sure your child takes medicines as prescribed. Often people who feel better after taking an antidepressant for a period of time may feel like they are "cured" and no longer need treatment. But when medicine is stopped, symptoms usually return, so it is important that your child follows the treatment plan.

Your child will also need to keep counseling appointments and continue with lifestyle changes, such as eating healthy foods and getting regular exercise.

If your child has an additional illness along with depression, he or she will need to continue receiving treatment for the other illness. Tell all health professionals what medications your child is taking and the treatment he or she is receiving.

Treatment if the condition gets worse

If your child's condition gets worse during treatment for depression (which includes counseling, medications, and lifestyle changes), additional treatment may be needed. Steps include:

  • Making sure your child is taking medicines as prescribed and is following other treatment recommendations, such as going to counseling appointments.
  • Finding out whether ongoing symptoms are caused by another disorder (such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), anxiety disorder or substance abuse) and treating the other condition if needed.
  • Identifying and reducing stresses that may be making symptoms worse.
  • Changing the dose or type of medicine your child is taking.
  • Making sure your child continues with home treatments, such as eating a balanced diet and getting regular exercise.

A brief hospital stay may be needed, especially if your child is showing any warning signs of suicide (such as aggressive or hostile behavior, excessive thoughts about death, or detachment from reality) or is so depressed that he or she becomes out of touch with reality (psychotic) or has hallucinations or delusions. The warning signs of suicide change with age. Warning signs of suicide in children and teens may include preoccupation with death or suicide or a recent breakup of a relationship.

If your child is depressed, consider removing all guns and potentially fatal medicines from your home, especially if your child has shown any warning signs of suicide. Although overdosing on medicine is the most common way teens attempt suicide, your child is at higher risk for completing a suicide if you have a gun in your home, particularly if it is easy to get to it or if you store it loaded.4

Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) , while seldom used on children, may be helpful for those who either have not responded to other treatments or whose depression is severe. In this procedure, brief electrical stimulation to the brain is given through electrodes placed on the head. This is thought to relieve depression by altering brain chemicals known as neurotransmitters.

What To Think About

Although experts believe that, for many children with depression, the benefits of medicine outweigh the risks, research on antidepressant medicine in children is limited. The long-term effects and safety of medicines used to treat depression in children and teens are still unknown. Recent U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) advisories warn about the possibility of increased risk for suicide in people taking antidepressant medicines.

Family involvement in the treatment for depression can be very important, especially for children and teens. Sometimes parents of children and teens with depression are also depressed and need treatment too. If a parent's depression goes untreated, it may interfere with the recovery of the child.

The sooner treatment begins for depression, the more rapidly your child is likely to recover. Waiting to seek treatment for depression may result in a longer and more difficult recovery.

Your child may start to feel better after 1 to 3 weeks of taking antidepressant medicine. But it can take as many as 6 to 8 weeks to see more improvement. Make sure that your child takes antidepressants as prescribed and keeps taking them so they have time to work. During this time it can be difficult to wait to see improvement in symptoms. Your child may need to try several different medicines before finding a medicine that works.

It is common for children and teens to have another episode of depression (relapse) within 2 to 5 years of the first episode.

Prevention

It is difficult to prevent a first episode of depression, but it may be possible to prevent or reduce the severity of future episodes of depression (relapses).

  • There is some evidence that if a child receives cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) in a group setting, it can help prevent or delay the onset of depression in a child or teen whose parent has depression (which puts the child at greater risk for becoming depressed).13
  • Your child must take medicines as prescribed, keep counseling appointments, eat a balanced diet, and get regular exercise. For more information, see the topic Physical Activity for Children and Teens.
  • Make sure your child has a good social support system, both at home and through teachers, other family members, and friends who can provide encouragement and understanding.
  • Learn to recognize early symptoms of depression, and seek immediate diagnosis and treatment if they occur.
  • Some schools provide educational materials and group therapy opportunities to those at high risk of developing depression, such as those who have family conflict or problems with peers.

Home Treatment

Do everything possible to provide a family environment for your child that is supportive and understanding. Love, understanding, and regular communication are some of the most important things you can provide to help your child cope with depression.

In addition to having a positive home life, staying in professional counseling, and taking medicines as prescribed, good lifestyle habits can help reduce your child's symptoms of depression. Encourage your child to:

  • Get regular exercise, such as swimming, walking, or playing vigorously every day. For more information, see the topic Physical Activity for Children and Teens.
  • Avoid alcohol and illegal drugs, nonprescription medicines, herbal therapies, and medicines that have not been prescribed (because they may interfere with the medicines used to treat depression).
  • Get enough sleep. If your child has problems sleeping, he or she might try:
    • Going to bed at the same time every night.
    • Keeping the bedroom dark and quiet.
    • Not exercising after 5:00 p.m.
  • Eat a balanced diet. If your child lacks an appetite, try to get him or her to eat small snacks rather than large meals.
  • Be hopeful about feeling better. Positive thinking is very important in recovering from depression. It is difficult to be hopeful when you feel depressed, but remind your child that improvement occurs gradually and takes time.

If you notice any warning signs of suicide (such as aggressive or hostile behavior, excessive thoughts about death, or detachment from reality) seek professional help immediately by calling either your child's doctor, a professional counselor, or a local mental health or emergency services. Call 911 if you feel your child is in immediate danger.

Medications

Medicines used to treat depression in children and teens are currently being researched for safety and long-term effects. You may have heard about concerns regarding a possible connection between antidepressant medicines and suicidal behavior. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has issued advisories about this issue. Especially during the first few weeks of treatment with an antidepressant, there is a possible increase in suicidal feelings or behavior. A child beginning antidepressant treatment should be monitored closely. But children with untreated depression are also at an increased risk for suicide, so it is important to carefully weigh all of the risks and benefits of antidepressant medicine.

Medication Choices

Medicine choices include:

  • Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), such as fluoxetine (Prozac, for example). Fluoxetine is currently the only SSRI approved for treating depression in children and teens. But other SSRIs such as citalopram (Celexa) or sertraline (Zoloft) may be effective and are sometimes prescribed.
  • Atypical antidepressant medications, such as bupropion (Wellbutrin, for example).
  • Monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs), such as tranylcypromine (Parnate) or phenelzine (Nardil).
  • Tricyclic antidepressants such as amitriptyline or desipramine (such as Norpramin). Tricyclic antidepressants have been used in the past for childhood depression, but recent studies have found limited evidence that these medicines are effective.11 Tricyclics also carry the risk of overdose and other serious consequences, such as heart problems.

What To Think About

Antidepressant medicines such as fluoxetine (Prozac, for example) can be effective in treating depression, but it may take 1 to 3 weeks before your child starts to feel better. It can take as many as 6 to 8 weeks to see more improvement. Make sure your child takes antidepressant medicines as prescribed and keeps taking them so they have time to work. If you have any questions or concerns about the medicine, or if you do not notice any improvement by 3 weeks, talk to your child's doctor.

SSRIs may also be effective in treating other conditions such as anxiety.

Your child may have to try several medicines before the most effective treatment is discovered. After the right medicine is found, your child may need to continue taking the medicine for several months or longer after the symptoms of depression have subsided, to prevent depression from occurring again.

Some children who are first diagnosed with depression are later diagnosed with bipolar disorder, which has symptoms that cycle from depression to mania (very high energy, often with euphoria, agitation, irritability, risk-taking behavior, or impulsiveness). If your child or teen has bipolar disorder, a first episode of mania can happen spontaneously. But it can also be triggered by certain medicines such as stimulants or antidepressants. That is why it is very important to tell your child's doctor about any family history of bipolar disorder and to watch your child closely for signs of manic behavior. For more information about bipolar disorder in young people, see the topic Bipolar Disorder in Children and Teens.

Click here to view a Decision Point. Depression: Should my child take medicine to treat depression?
Click here to view an Actionset. Depression: Taking antidepressants safely
Click here to view an Actionset. Depression: Dealing with medicine side effects

FDA Advisory. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has issued an advisory on antidepressant medicines and the risk of suicide. The FDA does not recommend that people stop using these medicines. Instead, a person taking antidepressants should be watched for warning signs of suicide. This is especially important at the beginning of treatment or when doses are changed.

Surgery

There is no surgical treatment for depression at this time.

Other Treatment

Professional counseling is an important part of treatment for depression. Lifestyle changes, such as getting regular exercise and enough sleep, may also help your child recover more quickly and improve his or her quality of life. Family therapy may be helpful for your entire family while you are dealing with depression in your child.

Having a child with depression can be challenging and requires understanding and patience. You should learn as much as you can about childhood depression and what you and other family members can do to help treat it. Family therapy can be an effective way to learn the best ways to help.

Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) may be an effective treatment for a teen or older child who is severely depressed or does not respond to other treatment, although this treatment is rarely used for children and teens. Even though it is an effective treatment for adults with major depression, there are currently no long-term studies on the safety of using ECT for children and teens or adults.5

Other Treatment Choices

Professional counseling is an important part of the treatment for depression. Types of counseling most often used to treat depression in children and teens are:

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy , which helps reduce negative patterns of thinking and encourages positive behaviors.
  • Interpersonal therapy , which focuses on the child's relationships with others.
  • Problem-solving therapy , which helps the child deal with current problems.
  • Family therapy, which provides a place for the whole family to express fears and concerns and learn new ways of getting along.
  • Play therapy , which is used with young children or children with developmental delays to help them cope with fears and anxieties. But there is no proof that this type of treatment reduces symptoms of depression.

Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), while seldom used on children, may be helpful for those who either have not responded to other treatments or whose depression is severe.

Complementary medicines

Complementary medicines such as St. John's wort have been used to treat depression in adults. But their effectiveness in children and teens has not been adequately studied. There is no evidence that these therapies are safe for use by children or teens.14 Complementary medicines can also interfere with other medicines, such as antidepressants.

What To Think About

Some symptoms of depression in children and teens may remain, even with medicine and other treatment. Depression in young people can be an ongoing problem and may need long-term treatment with professional counseling, medicines, education about the disorder, or a combination of these. Early treatment of depression may bring about the best results for your child.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved the vagus nerve stimulator (VNS) implant for treatment of depression in adults. This device may be used when other treatments for depression have not worked.

A generator the size of a pocket watch is placed in the chest. Wires go up the neck from the generator to the vagus nerve. The generator sends tiny electric shocks through the vagus nerve to that part of the brain that is believed to play a role in mood.

How well the VNS implant works for children has not been well studied, and the device is expensive.15

Other Places To Get Help

Organizations

KidsHealth for Parents, Children, and Teens
10140 Centurion Parkway North
Jacksonville, FL  32256
Phone: (904) 697-4100
Fax: (904) 697-4125
Web Address: www.kidshealth.org
 

This Web site is sponsored by the Nemours Foundation. It has a wide range of information about children's health, from allergies and diseases to normal growth and development (birth to adolescence). This Web site offers separate areas for kids, teens, and parents, each providing age-appropriate information that the child or parent can understand. You can sign up to get weekly e-mails about your area of interest.


Mental Health America
2000 North Beauregard Street, 6th Floor
Alexandria, VA  22311
Phone: 1-800-969-NMHA (1-800-969-6642) referral service for help with depression
(703) 684-7722
Fax: (703) 684-5968
TDD: 1-800-433-5959
Web Address: www.mentalhealthamerica.net
 

Mental Health America (formerly known as the National Mental Health Association) is a nonprofit agency devoted to helping people of all ages live mentally healthier lives. Its Web site has information about mental health conditions. It also addresses issues such as grief, stress, bullying, and more. It includes a confidential depression screening test for anyone who would like to take it. The short test may help you decide whether your symptoms are related to depression.


National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI)
Colonial Place Three
2107 Wilson Boulevard
Suite 300
Arlington, VA  22201-3042
Phone: 1-800-950-NAMI (1-800-950-6264) hotline for help with depression
(703) 524-7600
Fax: (703) 524-9094
TDD: (703) 516-7227
E-mail: info@nami.org
Web Address: www.nami.org
 

The National Alliance on Mental Illness is a national self-help and family advocacy organization dedicated solely to improving the lives of people who have severe mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder (manic depression), major depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and panic disorder. NAMI focuses on support, education, advocacy, and research. The mission of the organization is to "eradicate mental illness and improve the quality of life of those affected by these diseases."


National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH)
6001 Executive Boulevard
Room 8184, MSC 9663
Bethesda, MD  20892-9663
Phone: 1-866-615-6464 toll-free
(301) 443-4513
Fax: (301) 443-4279
TDD: 1-866-415-8051 toll-free
E-mail: nimhinfo@nih.gov
Web Address: www.nimh.nih.gov
 

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) provides information to help people better understand mental health, mental disorders, and behavioral problems. NIMH does not provide referrals to mental health professionals or treatment for mental health problems.


National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
Phone: 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255)
1-888-628-9454 Spanish
TDD: 1-800-799-4TTY (1-800-799-4889)
Web Address: www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org
 

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a 24-hour, toll-free suicide prevention service. Crisis centers are located in 130 locations across the United States. Callers are routed to the closest provider of mental health and suicide prevention services.


References

Citations

  1. Dulcan MK, et al. (2003). Mood disorders section of Adult disorders that may begin in childhood or adolescence. In Concise Guide to Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 3rd ed., pp. 129–177. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Publishing.
  2. Dahl RE, Brent D (2003). Affective disorders and suicide. In CD Rudolph et al., eds., Rudolph's Pediatrics, 21st ed., pp. 501–503. New York: McGraw–Hill.
  3. Renaud J, et al. (1999). A risk-benefit assessment of pharmacotherapies for clinical depression in children and adolescents. Drug Safety, 20(1): 59–75.
  4. Brent DA, Birmaher B (2002). Adolescent depression. New England Journal of Medicine, 347(9): 667–671.
  5. Hazell P (2007). Depression in children and adolescents, search date April 2005. Online version of Clinical Evidence: www.clinicalevidence.com.
  6. American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (2001). Practice parameter for the assessment and treatment of children and adolescents with suicidal behavior. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 40(Suppl 7): 24S–51S.
  7. Depression and suicide in children and adolescents (2000). Mental Health: A Report of the Surgeon General. Available online: http://www.mentalhealth.org/features/surgeongeneralreport/chapter3/sec5.asp.
  8. Saluja G, et al. (2004). Prevalence of and risk factors for depressive symptoms among young adolescents. Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, 158(8): 760–765.
  9. U.S. Preventative Services Task Force (2009). Screening and treatment for major depressive disorder in children and adolescents: U.S. Preventative Services Task Force recommendation statement. Pediatrics, 123(4): 1223–1228.
  10. American Academy of Pediatrics (1996). Classification of Child and Adolescent Mental Diagnoses in Primary Care: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Primary Care Child and Adolescent Version, pp. 153–160. Elk Grove Village, IL: American Academy of Pediatrics.
  11. Hazell P, et al. (2002). Tricyclic drugs for depression in children and adolescents. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews (2).
  12. March JS, et al. (2004). Fluoxetine, cognitive-behavioral therapy, and their combination for adolescents with depression: Treatment for Adolescents With Depression Study (TADS) Randomized Controlled Trial. JAMA, 292(7): 807–820.
  13. Clarke GN, et al. (2001). A randomized trial of a group cognitive intervention for preventing depression in adolescent offspring of depressed parents. Archives of General Psychiatry, 58(12): 1127–1134.
  14. Committee on Children With Disabilities, American Academy of Pediatrics (2001). Counseling families who choose complementary and alternative medicine for their child with chronic illness or disability. Pediatrics, 107(3): 598–601.
  15. Vagus nerve stimulation for depression (2005). Medical Letter on Drugs and Therapeutics, 47(1211): 50–51.

Other Works Consulted

  • American Psychiatric Association (2000). Seasonal pattern section of Mood disorders. In Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th ed., text rev., pp. 425–427. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association.
  • Ascherman LI, et al. (2006). Mental development and behavioral disorders. In FD Burg et al., eds., Current Pediatric Therapy, 18th ed., pp. 1213–1219. Philadelphia: W.B. Saunders.
  • Birmaher B, Brent DA, et al. (2000). Clinical outcomes after short-term psychotherapy for adolescents with major depressive disorder. Archives of General Psychiatry, 57(1): 29–36.
  • Brent DA, Wheersing VR (2007). Depressive disorders. In A Martin, FR Volkmar, eds., Lewis's Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 4th ed., pp. 503–513. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.
  • Compton MT, Nemeroff CB (2008). Depression and bipolar disorder. In DC Dale, DD Federman, eds., ACP Medicine, section 13, chap. 2. New York: WebMD.
  • Kaplan DW, Love-Osborne KA (2009). Adolescence. In WW Hay Jr et al., eds., Current Pediatric Diagnosis and Treatment, 19th ed., pp. 114–115. New York: Lange Medical Books/McGraw-Hill.
  • Klein DN, et al. (2001). A family study of major depressive disorder in a community sample of adolescents. Archives of General Psychiatry, 58(1): 13–20.
  • March JS, et al. (2004). Fluoxetine, cognitive-behavioral therapy, and their combination for adolescents with depression: Treatment for Adolescents With Depression Study (TADS) Randomized Controlled Trial. JAMA, 292(7): 807–820.
  • Mrazek DA, Mrazek PJ (2007). Prevention of depression and suicide in children and adolescents. In A Martin, FR Volkmar, eds., Lewis's Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 4th ed., pp. 171–177. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.
  • Shaffer D (2005). Depressive disorders and suicide in children and adolescents. In BJ Sadock, VA Sadock, eds., Kaplan and Sadock’s Comprehensive Textbook of Psychiatry, 8th ed., vol. 2, pp. 3262–3274. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.

Credits

Author Debby Golonka, MPH
Editor Susan Van Houten, RN, BSN, MBA
Associate Editor Pat Truman, MATC
Primary Medical Reviewer Adam Husney, MD - Family Medicine
Last Updated April 16, 2009

Last Updated: April 16, 2009

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