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Depression is a state of low mood and aversion to activity that may be a normal reaction to life events or circumstances, a symptom of some medical conditions, a side effect of some drugs or medical treatments, or a symptom of certain psychiatric syndromes such as the mood disorders major depressive disorder and dysthymia. Depression in childhood and adolescence may be similar to adult major depressive disorder, although younger sufferers may exhibit increased irritability or aggressive and self-destructive behaviors, rather than the all-encompassing sadness associated with adult forms of depression[1] Children who are under stress, who experience loss, or who have attentional, learning, behavioral, or anxiety disorders are at a higher risk for depression. Childhood depression is often comorbid with mental disorders outside of the mood disorders; most commonly anxiety disorder and conduct disorder. Depression also tends to run in families.[2] Psychologists have developed different treatments to assist children and adolescents suffering from depression, though the legitimacy of the diagnosis of childhood depression as a psychiatric disorder, as well as the efficacy of various methods of assessment and treatment, remains controversial.

Only in the past two decades has depression in children been taken very seriously. The depressed child may pretend to be sick, refuse to go to school, cling to a parent, or worry that the parent may die. Older children may sulk, get into trouble at school, be negative, grouchy, and feel misunderstood. Because normal behaviors vary from one childhood stage to another, it can be difficult to tell whether a child is just going through a temporary "phase" or is suffering from depression. Sometimes the parents become worried about how the child's behavior has changed, or a teacher mentions that "your child doesn't seem to be himself." In such a case, if a visit to the child's pediatrician rules out physical symptoms, the doctor will probably suggest that the child be evaluated, preferably by a psychiatrist who specializes in the treatment of children. If treatment is needed, the doctor may suggest that another therapist, usually a social worker or a psychologist, provide therapy while the psychiatrist will oversee medication if it is needed. Parents should not be afraid to ask questions: What are the therapist's qualifications? What kind of therapy will the child have? Will the family as a whole participate in therapy? Will my child's therapy include an antidepressant? If so, what might the side effects be?

The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) has identified the use of medications for depression in children as an important area for research. The NIMH-supported Research Units on Pediatric Psychopharmacology (RUPPs) form a network of seven research sites where clinical studies on the effects of medications for mental disorders can be conducted in children and adolescents. Among the medications being studied are antidepressants, some of which have been found to be effective in treating children with depression, if properly monitored by the child's physician.(Vitiello &, Jensen 1997).NIMH

Base Rates and Prevalence

About 8% of children and adolescents suffer from depression.[3] Research suggests that the prevalence of young depression sufferers in Western cultures ranges from 1.9% to 3.4% among primary school children and 3.2% to 8.9% among adolescents.[4] Studies have also found that among children diagnosed with a depressive episode, there is a 70% rate of recurrence within five years.[4] Furthermore, 50% of children with depression will have a recurrence at least once during their adulthood.[5] While there is no gender difference in depression rates up until age fifteen, after that age the rate among females climbs to twice as high as among males. However, in terms of recurrence rates and symptom severity, there is no gender difference.[6] In an attempt to explain these findings, one theory asserts that pre-adolescent females, on average, have more risk factors for depression than males. These risk factors then combine with the typical stresses and challenges of adolescent development to trigger the onset of depression.[7]

Suicidal Intent

Like their adult counterparts, children and adolescent depression sufferers are at an increased risk of attempting or committing suicide.[8] Adolescent males may be at an even higher risk of suicidal behavior if they also present with a conduct disorder.[9] In the 1990s, the National Institute of Medical Health found that up to 7% of adolescents who develop major depressive disorder may commit suicide as young adults.[10] Such statistics demonstrate the importance of interventions by family and friends, as well as the importance of early diagnosis and treatment by medical staff, to prevent suicide among depressed or at-risk youth.

Risk Factor

In childhood, males and females appear to be at equal risk for depressive disorders; during adolescence, however, females are twice as likely as boys to develop depression. Children who develop major depression are more likely to have a family history of the disorder (often a parent who experienced depression at an early age), than patients with adolescent- or adult-onset depression. Adolescents with depression are also likely to have a family history of depression, though the correlation is not as high as it is for children.[11]


Research has shown that there is a high rate of comorbidity with depression in children with dysthymia[12] There is also a substantial comorbidity rate with depression in children and anxiety disorders, conduct disorder, and impaired social functioning.[1][12] Particularly, there is a high comorbidity rate with anxiety, ranging from 15.9% to 75%[12][13] Conduct disorders also have a significant comorbidity with depression in children and adolescents, with a rate of 23% in one longitudinal study.[14] Beyond other clinical disorders, there is also an association between depression in childhood and poor psychosocial and academic outcomes, as well as a higher risk for substance abuse and suicide.[1]


According to the DSM-IV, children must exhibit either a depressed mood or a loss of interest or pleasure in normal activities. These activities may include school, extracurricular activities, or peer interactions. Depressive moods in children can be expressed as being unusually irritable, which may be shown by “acting out,” behaving recklessly, or often reacting with anger or hostility. Children who do not have the cognitive or language development to properly express mood states can also exhibit their mood through physical complaints, such as showing sad facial expressions (frowning) and poor eye contact. A child must also exhibit four other symptoms in order to be clinically diagnosed.

Correlation between Adolescent Depression and Adulthood Obesity

According to a research done by Laura.P.Richardson et al., major depression occurred in 7% of the cohort during early adolescence (11, 13, and 15 years of age) and 27% during late adolescence (18 and 21 years of age). At 26 years of age, 12% of study members were obese. After adjusting for each individual's baseline body mass index (calculated as the weight in kilograms divided by the square of height in meters), depressed late adolescent girls were at a greater than 2-fold increased risk for obesity in adulthood compared with their non-depressed female peers (relative risk, 2.32; 95% confidence interval, 1.29-3.83). A dose-response relationship between the number of episodes of depression during adolescence, and risk for adult obesity was also observed in female subjects. The association was not observed for late adolescent boys or for early adolescent boys or girls.[15]

Correlation between Child Depression and Adolescent Cardiac Risks

According to a research done by RM Carney et al., any history of child depression influences the occurrence of adolescent cardiac risk factors, even if individuals no longer suffer from depression. They are much more likely to develop heart disease as adults.[16]

Distinction from Major Depressive Disorder in Adults

While there are many similarities to adult depression, especially in expression of symptoms, there are many differences that create a distinction between the two diagnoses. Research has shown that when a child’s age is younger at diagnosis, typically there will be a more noticeable difference in expression of symptoms from the classic signs in adult depression.[17] One major difference between the symptoms exhibited in adults and in children is that children have higher rates of internalization; therefore, symptoms of child depression are more difficult to recognize.[18] One major cause for this difference is that many of the neurobiological effects within the brain that have been shown in adults with depression are not fully developed until adulthood. Therefore, in a neurological sense, children and adolescents express depression differently.


Child abuse first began to come into the awareness of professionals in the early 1980s, so it is possible that some of the young people identified with depressive disorders may have had a history of sexual abuse which was not disclosed. This raises the question of what the outcome would have been in those young people who had been sexually abused if they had disclosed the abuse and received appropriate therapeutic interventions. It is well known that childhood sexual abuse is a significant factor in the histories of some adults presenting with depressive syndromes.

In the past, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) was not recognised, and hyperkinetic disorder was only rarely diagnosed. Some young people, especially those with comorbid conduct disorder and major depressive disorder, may have had undiagnosed and untreated ADHD. Before the use of psychostimulants, some young people may have been more vulnerable to development of depressive syndromes because of untreated attentional and other behavioural problems negatively impacting their self-esteem.

Although antidepressants were used by child and adolescent psychiatrists to treat major depressive disorder, they may not always have been used in young people with a comorbid conduct disorder because of the risks of overdose in such a population. Tricyclic antidepressants were the predominant antidepressants used at that time in this population. With the advent of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, child and adolescent psychiatrists probably began prescribing more anti-depressants in the comorbid conduct disorder/major depressive group because of the lower risk of serious harm in overdose. This raises the possibility that more effective treatment of these young people might also have an impact on their outcomes in adult life. [19]


There are multiple treatments that can be effective in treating children diagnosed with depression. Psychotherapy and medications are commonly used treatment options. In some research, adolescents showed a preference for psychotherapy rather than antidepressant medication for treatment.[20] For adolescents, cognitive behavioral therapy and interpersonal therapy have been empirically supported as effective treatment options.[1] The use of antidepressant medication in children is often seen as a last resort; however, studies have shown that a combination of psychotherapy and medication is the most effective treatment.[21] Pediatric massage therapy may have an immediate impact on a child's emotional state at the time of the massage, but sustained effects on depression have not been identified.[22]

Treatment programs have been developed that help reduce the symptoms of depression. These treatments focus on immediate symptom reduction by concentrating on teaching children skills pertaining to primary and secondary control. While much research is still needed to confirm this treatment program’s efficacy, one study showed it to be effective in children with mild or moderate depressive symptoms.[23]

Talk Therapy

There are 3 common types of talk therapy. These can assist people to live more fully and have a better life.[24]

Cognitive therapy

Cognitive therapy aims to change harmful ways of thinking and reframe negative thoughts in a more positive way.

Behavioural therapy

Behavioral therapy helps aims to change harmful ways of acting and gain control over behavior which is causing problems.

Interpersonal therapy

Interpersonal therapy helps one to learn to relate better with others, express feelings and develop better social skills.

Family Therapy

The principles of group dynamics are relevant to family therapists who must not only work with individuals, but with entire family systems[25] Two key concepts that influence family therapy are the distinction between the process and content of group discussions, and role theory.

Therapists strive to understand not just what the group members say, but how these ideas are communicated (process). Therapists can help families improve the way they relate and thus enhance their own capacity to deal with the content of their problems by focusing on the process of their discussions. Virginia Satir expanded on the concept of how individuals behave and communicate in groups by describing several family roles that can serve to stabilize expected characteristic behavior patterns in a family. For instance, if one child is considered as a "rebel child," a sibling may take on the role of the "good child" to alleviate some of the stress in the family. This concept of role reciprocity is helpful to understanding family dynamics because of the complementary nature of roles makes behaviors more resistant to change. [26]


Throughout the development and research of this disorder, controversies have emerged over the legitimacy of depression in childhood and adolescence as a diagnosis, the proper measurement and validity of scales to diagnose, and the safety of particular treatments.

Legitimacy as a Diagnosis

In early research of depression in children, there was argument as to whether or not children could clinically fit the criteria for Major Depressive Disorder.[27] However, since the 1970s, it has been accepted among the psychological community that depression in children can be clinically significant[27] The more pertinent controversy in psychology today centers around the clinical significance of subthreshold mood disorders. This controversy stems from the debate as to what the definition of the specific criteria for a clinically significant depressed mood is in relevance to the cognitive and behavioral symptoms. Some psychologists argue as to whether the effects of mood disorders in children and adolescents that exist but do not fully meet the criteria for depression have severe enough risks.

Children in this area of severity, they argue, should receive some sort of treatment since the effects could still be severe.

[5] However, since there has yet to be enough research or scientific evidence to support that children that fall within the area just shy of a clinical diagnosis require treatment, other psychologists are hesitant to support the dispensation of treatment.

Diagnosis Controversy

In order to diagnose a child with depression, different screening measures and reports have been developed to help clinicians make a proper decision. However, the accuracy and effectiveness of certain measures that help psychologists diagnose children have come into question.[28] Questions have also surfaced about the safety and effectiveness of antidepressant medications.[29]

Measurement Reliability

The effectiveness of dimensional child self-report checklists has been criticized. Despite the fact that literature has documented strong psychometric properties, other studies have shown a poor specificity at the top end of scales, resulting in most children with high scores not meeting the diagnostic criteria for depression.[5] Another issue with reliability of measurement for diagnosis occurs in parent, teacher, and child reports. One study, which observed the similarities between child self-report and parent reports on the child's symptoms of depression, acknowledged that on more subjective symptom reports measures, the agreement was not significant enough to be considered reliable.[28] Two self-report scales demonstrated an erroroneous classification of twenty-five percent of children in both the depressed and controlled samples.[30] A large concern in the use of self-report scales is the accuracy of the information collected. The main controversy is caused by uncertainty about how the data from these multiple informants can or should be combined to determine whether a child can be diagnosed with depression.[5]

Treatment Issues

The controversy over the use of antidepressants began in 2003 when Great Britain's Department of Health stated that, based on data collected by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, paroxetine (an antidepressant) should not be used on patients under the age of 18.[29] Since then, the US' Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has issued a warning describing the increased risk of adverse effects for antidepressants used as treatment in those under the age of 18[29] The main concern is whether the risks outweigh the benefits of the treatment. In order to decide this, studies often look at the adverse effects caused by the medication in comparison to the overall symptom improvement.[29] While multiple studies have shown an improvement or efficacy rate of over fifty percent, the concern of severe side effects, such as suicidal ideation or suicidal attempts, worsening of symptoms, or increase in hostility, are still concerns when using antidepressants.[29] However, an analysis of multiple studies argues that while the risk of suicidal ideation or attempt is present, the benefits significantly outweigh the risk[31] It is currently recommended that, because of the variability of these studies, if antidepressants are chosen as a method of treatment for children or adolescents, that the clinician monitor closely for adverse symptoms, since there is still no definitive answer on the safety and overall efficacy[29][31]

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 Birmaher, B., Ryan, N.D., Williamson, D.E. Brent, D.A., Kaufman, J., Dahl, R.E., Perel, J. & Nelson, B. (1996). Childhood and adolescent depression: A review of the past 10 years. Part I. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 35(11), 1427-1439.
  2. American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. The Depressed Child, “Facts for Families,” No. 4 (5/08)
  3. Eapen, Valsamma. (2012). Strategies and challenges in the management of adolescent depression. Current Opinion in Psychiatry, 25(1), 7-13.
  4. 4.0 4.1 Kovacs, M., Feinberg, T.L., Crousenovak, M.A., Paulauskas, S.L., & Finkelstein, R. (1984). Depressive-disorders in childhood. 1. A longitudinal prospective-study of characteristics and recovery. Archives of General Psychiatry, 41(3), 229-237.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 Kessler, R.C., Avenevoli, S., & Merikangas, K.R. (2001). Mood disorders in children and adolescents: An epidemiological perspective. Biological Psychiatry, 49(12), 1002-1014.
  6. Hankin, B.L., Abramson, L.Y., Moffitt, T.E., Siilva, P.A., McGee, R. Angell, K.E. (1998) Development of depression from preadolescence to young adulthood: Emerging gender differences in a 10-year longitudinal study. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 107(1), 128-1140.
  7. Nolen-hoeksema, S. & Girgus, J.S. (1994). The emergence of gender differences in depression during adolescence. Psychological Bulletin, 115(3), 424-443.
  8. Shaffer D, Gould MS, Fisher P, et al. Psychiatric diagnosis in child and adolescent suicide. Archives of General Psychiatry, 1996; 53(4): 339-48.
  9. Shaffer D, Craft L. Methods of adolescent suicide prevention. Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 1999; 60(Suppl 2): 70-4; discussion 75-6, 113-6.
  10. Weissman MM, Wolk S, Goldstein RB, et al. Depressed adolescents grown up. Journal of the American Medical Association, 1999; 281:1701-13.
  11. A Fact Sheet. National Institute of Mental Health.
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 Angold, A., & Costello, E.J. (1993) Depressive comorbidity in children and adolescents: Empirical, theoretical, and methodological issues. The American Journal of Psychiatry, 150(12), 1779-1791.
  13. Brady, E.U., & Kendall, P.C. (1992) Comorbidity of anxiety and depression in children and adolescents. Psychological Bulletin, 111(2), 244-255.
  14. Kovacs, M., Paulauskas, S., Gatsonis, C., & Richards, C. (1988). Depressive-disorders in childhood. 3. A longitudinal-study of co-morbidity with and risk for conduct disorders. Journal of Affective Disorders, 15(3), 205-217.
  15. Hynes, J., N. McCune (2002). Follow-up of childhood depression: historical factors. The British Journal of Psychiatry 181: 166–167.
  16. Carney, RM, et al. (2013).
  17. Kaufman, J., Martin, A., King, R.A., & Charney, D. (2001). Are child-, adolescent-, and adult-onset depression one and the same disorder? Biological Psychiatry, 49(12), 980-1001.
  18. Zahn-Waxler, C., Klimes-Dougan, B., & Slattery, M.J. (2000). Internalizing problems of childhood and adolescence: Prospects, pitfalls, and progress in understanding the development of anxiety and depression. Development and Psychopathology, 12(3), 443-466.
  19. Hynes, J, N. McCune (2002). Follow-up of childhood depression: historical factors. British journal of psychiatry 181: 166–167.
  20. Bradley, K.L., McGrath, P.J., Brannen, C.L., & Bagnell, A.L. (2010). Adolescents’ attitudes and opinions about depression treatment. Community Mental Health Journal, 46(3), 242-251.
  21. Chakraburtty, Amal Depression in Children. WebMD. WebMD, LLC.. URL accessed on 15 September 2011.
  22. Jorm AF, Allen NB, O'Donnell CP, Parslow RA, Purcell R, Morgan AJ (October 2006). Effectiveness of complementary and self-help treatments for depression in children and adolescents. Med. J. Aust. 185 (7): 368–72.
  23. Weisz, J.R., Thurber, C.A., Sweeney, L., Proffitt, V.D., & LeGagnoux, G.L. (1997). Brief treatment of mild-to-moderate child depression using primary and secondary control enhancement training. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 65(4), 703-707.
  24. An overview of talk therapy.
  25. Nichols & Schwartz, Family Therapy: Concepts and Methods. Fourth Edition. Allyn & Bacon 1998
  26. Family therapy historical overview.
  27. 27.0 27.1 Chambers, W.J., Puigantich, J., Tabrizi, M., & Davies, M. (1982) Psychotic symptoms in prepubertal major depressive disorder. Archives of General Psychiatry, 39(8), 921-927.
  28. 28.0 28.1 Barret, M.L., Berney, T.P., Bhate, S., Famuyiwa, O.O., Fundudis, T., Kolvin, I., & Tyrer, S. (1991). Diagnosing childhood depression - who should be interviewed - parent or child - the Newcastle-child-depression-project. British Journal of Psychiatry, 159(11), 22-27.
  29. 29.0 29.1 29.2 29.3 29.4 29.5 Cheung, A.H., Emslie, G.J., & Mayes, T.L. (2005) review of the efficacy and safety and antidepressants in youth depression. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 46(7), 735-754.
  30. Fundudis, T., Berney, T.P., Kolvin, I., Famuyiwa, O.O., Barrett, L., Bhate, S., & Tyrer, S.P. (1991). Reliability and validity of 2 self-rating scales in the assessment of childhood depression. British Journal of Psychology, 159(11), 36-40.
  31. 31.0 31.1 Bridge, J.A., Iyengar, S., Salary, C.B., Barbe, R.P., Birmaher, B., Pincus, H.A., Ren, L., & Brent, D.A. (2007). Clinical response and risk for reported suicidal ideation and suicide attempts in pediatric antidepressant treatment: A meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Jama-Journal of the American Medical Association, 297(15), 1683-1696.

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  • Vitiello B, Jensen P. (1997). Medication development and testing in children and adolescents. Archives of General Psychiatry, 54:871-6.

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Types of depression
Depressed mood | Clinical depression | Bipolar disorder |Cyclothymia | |Dysthymia |Postpartum depression | |Reactive | Endogenous |
Aspects of depression
The social context of depression | Risk factors | Suicide and depression | [[]] | Depression in men | Depression in women | Depression in children |Depression in adolescence |
Research on depression
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Biological factors in depression
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Depression theory
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Depression in clinical settings
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Assessing depression
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Approaches to treating depression
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