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Cancer Health Center

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Depression (PDQ®): Supportive care - Health Professional Information [NCI] - Pediatric Considerations for Depression

There is limited information concerning the incidence of depression in healthy children. One study of children seen in a general practice showed that 38% had problems that required major intervention by a psychiatrist. Another study of children aged 7 to 12 years showed a 1.9% incidence of depression. If applied to the general population of the United States, these results show that 40,000 12-year-olds are depressed. Teachers have estimated that as many as 10% to 15% of their students are depressed. The Joint Commission on Mental Health of Children states that 1.4 million children younger than 18 years need immediate help for disorders such as depression; only one-third of these children receive help for their disorder.[1]

Most children cope with the emotional upheaval related to cancer and demonstrate not only evidence of adaptation but positive psychosocial growth and development. A minority of children, however, develops psychological problems including depression, anxiety, sleep disturbances, difficulties in interpersonal relationships, and noncompliance with treatment. These children require referral and intervention by a mental health specialist.[2]

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In one of the first studies of depression in childhood cancer, 114 children and adolescents were studied, and 59% were found to have mild psychiatric problems.[3] A study of 17 adolescent and 21 pediatric oncology patients, all of whom were administered a self-report psychosocial life events inventory, showed that the adolescent samples had a mean level of depressive symptoms similar to that of the general population. The pediatric oncology sample demonstrated significantly lower depressive symptoms than the general population.[4][Level of evidence: II] Forty-one adolescent survivors of childhood cancer were assessed using questionnaires and interviews to determine the psychosocial status of the survivors; most survivors were functioning well, and depression was rare.[5] A study of long-term cancer survivors and their mothers, comparing the survivors with a group of 92 healthy children, showed that the majority of former patients were functioning within normal limits. Not surprisingly, children with severe late effects had more depressive symptoms.[6][Level of evidence: II] One researcher looked at the characteristics of psychiatric consultations in a pediatric cancer center and found that adjustment disorder was the chief psychosocial diagnosis. This finding is similar to results obtained from adult cancer patients. This study also found that anxiety reactions were more common in the younger pediatric patients and depressive disorders were more common in older patients.[7] In a study conducted in 1988 with a sample of 30 adolescent cancer patients, the rate of major depression was not greater than the rate for the population at large.[8][Level of evidence: II] One review reported a 17% incidence of depression using the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders, 3rd Edition criteria.[9]

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