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Depression: Is Your Child Depressed?

Depression in children can have dire lifelong consequences. Do you know the signs?
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Children are not immune to depressiondepression. Just like for adults, treatment can be critical. Finding help for a depressed child may forestall years of anguish, and may even save that child's life. Yet ongoing controversy over the safety of antidepressant drugs has left many wondering what really helps or harms.

Few, least of all parents, think childhood is a state of constant bliss. Children's moods are like tropical seas: Tranquil waters can suddenly whip into a howling storm, returning just as quickly to sunshine and fair breezes. Depression, however, should not be confused with normal moodiness. It's as real and serious for children -- even very young children -- as it is for adults.

"It's relatively recent that we are recognizing depression in children," says David Fassler, MD, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at the University of Vermont College of Medicine. "When I went to medical school some 20-odd years ago, we were taught that kids didn't get depressed."

But kids do get depressed. According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, an estimated 2% of young children, and 4% to 8% of adolescents, suffer from depression.

While depression definitely exists in some younger kids, it's much more common in teenagers. Researchers predict that about one in 10 kids will develop a depressive disorder by age 16. That's based on a study in which 1,420 kids were evaluated for mental disorders every three months until their 16th birthday.

Depression in Children Has Lifelong Repercussions

Depression can have harsh and lasting consequences for children. It can lead to setbacks in a child's social life, emotional growth, and performance in school, as well as substance abuse.

"Without treatment, an average episode of depression in kids will last about nine months, which is about the length of a school year," Fassler says. "It's very difficult to catch back up."

Making matters worse, people who struggle with depression as kids may feel the impact in adulthood. A study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association found that adults diagnosed with depression as adolescents were at a disadvantage compared with those who never had depression. The findings showed:

  • Their average income was lower.
  • Fewer of them graduated from college.
  • They were more likely to be unemployed.
  • More reported having problems in their work and their social and family lives.

And those with a history of adolescent depression were twice as likely to have an episode of depression as an adult compared to a person who had no past or current history of a psychiatric condition.

The study's most disturbing finding was a high rate of suicide attempts and deaths. There were no suicide deaths among those who were not depressed in adolescence, while 7% of those who were depressed as kids killed themselves, and 34% attempted suicide.

This is not an isolated statistic. It's well known that depressed children are at high risk for suicide. Suicide is the third leading cause of death for 10- to 24-year-olds in the U. S.

Depression is dangerous territory. Having entered it, kids need every bit of help they can get to survive and find their way out.

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