Depression in Teens and Children
Depression is one of the most prevalent mental health disorders in the country and it is on the rise as one of the most serious health concerns facing us. The irony is that it is also one of the most treatable disorders, through psychotherapy and/or medication. Yet barely a third of the people with depression seek help or are properly diagnosed.
It is estimated that about 10 to 15 percent of children and teens are depressed at any given time. Research indicates that one of every four adolescents will have an episode of major depression during high school with the average age of onset being 14 years!
These episodes typically last several months when untreated. While this indicates the main problem is likely to abate without treatment, these teens are at much higher risk for suicide which is a leading cause of death during adolescence. In addition, during an untreated episode of major depression, teens are more likely to get into serious substance abuse addictions or suffer significant rates of dropping out of their typical activities and social groups. Thus, even if the depressive episode wanes, significant problems may continue on.
The milder form of depression, called dysthymia, is more difficult to diagnose, especially in elementary school children. Yet this form of depression actually lasts much longer. Typical episodes last seven years and often longer. Many depressed adults can trace their sad, discouraged, or self-dislike feelings back to childhood or adolescence.
With children, although typical adult features may be present, they are more likely to show symptoms of somatic complaints, withdrawal, antisocial behavior, clinging behaviors, nightmares, and boredom. Yes, many of these are common for non-depressed children. But usually they are transient, lasting about four to six weeks. You should become concerned when the symptoms last for at least two months, don’t respond to reasonable parental interventions, and seem to pervade the child’s life rather than be confined to just one aspect.
I have referred to major depression and dysthymia as two primary forms of depression. Very briefly, there are a number of symptoms common to both but with a greater severity in the former. In adults, depressed mood, loss of interest or pleasure in activities, loss of appetite or overeating, sleeping a lot or not being able to sleep, loss of energy, loss of self-esteem, indecisiveness, hopelessness, problems with concentration, and suicidal thoughts or attempts are the signs of depression. People rarely have all of them.
We usually look for at least four or more and, again, severity and longevity are important determinants when making a diagnosis. Teens will exhibit more adult-like symptoms but severe withdrawal is especially significant.
In childhood, boys actually may have a higher rate of depression than girls but it is often missed because many of the depressed boys act out and the underlying depression is missed. In adolescence, girls begin the same predominance as women, about two to three times the rate of males. Contrary to popular belief, research rejects the notion that it is related to hormonal changes associated with adolescence. Instead, just as with adult women, sexual harassment and experiences of discrimination appear to be more significant causes.