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Depression in children and young people

Key points

  • Around one in 10 children are affected by depression before they reach 18.
  • It’s important to treat depression as early as possible.
  • Half of all children with depression get better within a year.

Depression is a condition in which you have a low mood and a loss of interest in everyday activities. You may also have feelings of low self-worth, a lack of energy and poor concentration. These may last from two to six weeks.

About depression in children and young people

Around one in 10 children are affected by depression before they reach 18. Depression is more common in girls than in boys.

All children feel sad or miserable from time to time, but these feelings often pass. Depression can make your child feel sad or low for a long period of time. It can affect their social life, how they usually spend their time or other areas of their life.

There are three levels of depression that are classified according to symptoms.

  • Mild depression can cause your child to feel unhappy, but won’t stop him or her from leading a normal life. Your child may find everyday things difficult to do and less worthwhile. If your child makes some simple lifestyle changes, it can help him or her to recover from mild depression.
  • Moderate depression can have a significant impact on your child’s life and it can make him or her feel constantly miserable and low. It’s important for your child to visit a GP as changes in lifestyle alone are unlikely to help.
  • Severe depression can cause your child to have constant negative thoughts and feel like he or she isn't able to cope. It’s important that your child visits a doctor as soon as possible as he or she may even have suicidal thoughts.

Around one in 10 children who have depression recover within three months. After a year, half of all children with depression get better. However, depression in children and young people can often come back (recur) and continue into adulthood. It’s therefore important to treat the condition as early as possible.

Symptoms of depression in children and young people

The symptoms of depression can vary from person to person. Some of the most common symptoms include:

  • a low mood and feeling irritable
  • losing interest in everyday activities and not wanting to see friends or family
  • feeling guilty or bad, being self-critical
  • feeling hopeless or helpless
  • feeling unhappy for most of the day
  • lacking self-esteem
  • problems sleeping
  • tiredness and a lack of energy
  • difficulty concentrating
  • loss of confidence
  • changes in appetite
  • frequent aches and pains, such as a headache or stomach pain
  • thoughts about death or suicide

These symptoms may be caused by problems other than depression. If your child has any of these symptoms, see your GP for advice.

It can sometimes be difficult to tell if a young person has symptoms of depression or is showing signs of normal teenage development. Generally, children are said to have depression if they have symptoms for two weeks or longer.

Complications of depression in children and young people

Severe depression is associated with self-harm and suicide, so it’s important to look out for changes in your child’s mood. Although this may not happen, it's important to be aware of these complications.

Causes of depression in children and young people

There isn’t a specific cause of depression and it can often be a combination of events that cause it. Depression tends to run in families. It also appears to be linked with chemical changes in the part of the brain that controls your child’s mood. Life events that can trigger depression include:

  • family problems or parents splitting up
  • the death of a relative, friend or someone close
  • abuse
  • bullying
  • neglect
  • long-term health problems or a serious illness
  • problems at school, such as low grades
  • a major life change, such as moving house
  • relationship problems
  • alcohol or drug use

If your child has had depression, their risk of having it again within five years is higher than a child who hasn’t had depression. However, most children and young people who have depression will go on to lead a normal adult life.

Diagnosis of depression in children and young people

It’s important to seek medical help early if you think your child has depression. Your child’s GP is a good first point of contact. He or she may suggest your child goes to a child and adolescent mental health service for help.

As well as talking to your child about their symptoms, your child’s doctor may also get information from a range of people, such as you and your child’s teachers.

There is no specific medical test to diagnose depression. However, your child may have a number of psychological and medical tests to see if any other medical condition is causing his or her symptoms.

Many young people who have depression get better by themselves. However, if your child has severe depression, your GP may refer him or her to see a specialist. This may be a child psychiatrist (a doctor who specialises in mental health problems in children and adolescents) or a clinical psychologist. The psychiatrist or psychologist can talk with your child about his or her problems.

Treatment of depression in children and young people

There are a number of treatments available for depression. Your doctor will advise you which type of treatment is most suitable for your child.

Self-help

If your child has mild depression, there are a number of things he or she can do to help ease their symptoms. For example, regular exercise, such as walking, running, swimming or cycling can help your child to feel better. Your child’s doctor may advise him or her to follow an exercise programme. It’s also important that your child eats a healthy, well balanced diet.

It's also very important to be supportive. For example, you talk to your child about their problems and give some reassurance that you will help him or her to get better.

Talking therapies

Your child’s doctor may advise your child to have a talking therapy. However, the type of talking therapy your child has will depend on its availability, their preferences and what is most suitable.

Counselling will involve your child talking to a therapist about their problems. In these sessions, the counsellor won’t offer advice or treatment, but will ask your child questions to help resolve his or her worries. Counsellors can sometimes help by working with you and your child’s school.

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can help your child to change their behaviour and negative thoughts and feelings. Your child may be able to have cognitive behavioural therapy individually or in a group with others the same age. Your child’s doctor will advise you on what is most suitable.

Interpersonal therapy involves your child talking with a therapist about any relationship problems he or she may have with friends, family or people at school. Your child’s therapist may be able to help your child to solve or manage their problems.

Family therapy is a type of treatment that involves you and your child working together. You will meet with a therapist and your child will talk about any problems he or she is having. It’s important that you and any other family members who are involved with your child go to the sessions together.

Medicines

Your child’s psychiatrist will only prescribe antidepressant medicines if your child has severe depression, or if their symptoms don’t go away. Your child’s psychiatrist may advise that he or she takes an antidepressant called fluoxetine (Prozac) as well as have a talking therapy.

Your child will need to see their psychiatrist weekly for the first four weeks of their treatment and then regularly afterwards. Your child’s psychiatrist will give you and your child information about any possible side-effects of the medicine and how long the treatment should last.

If your child doesn’t feel better after taking fluoxetine, he or she may be prescribed a different antidepressant such as sertraline or citalopram. However, this is rare as there are concerns about harmful side-effects. Always ask your doctor for advice and read the patient information leaflet that comes with the medicine.

Your child will need to continue to take antidepressant medicines for six to nine months after he or she feels better.

Hospital treatment

Most children and young people who have depression get better without needing hospital treatment. However, if your child has suicidal thoughts or their psychiatrist is concerned about self-harm, your child may need to go into hospital. Sometimes this will be enforced under the mental health act in the UK.

Complementary therapies

St John’s wort is often used by adults as an alternative to antidepressant medicines. However, don't give it to your child as the safety of the herbal remedy is unknown in children.

 

Produced by Rachael Mayfield-Blake, Bupa Health Information Team, July 2013.

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  • This information was published by Bupa's Health Information Team and is based on reputable sources of medical evidence. It has been reviewed by appropriate medical or clinical professionals. Photos are only for illustrative purposes and do not reflect every presentation of a condition. The content is intended only for general information and does not replace the need for personal advice from a qualified health professional. For more details on how we produce our content and its sources, visit the about our health information page.

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