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depression in children

Alternative Names
childhood depression

Depression is a feeling of sadness, despair or hopelessness. The feelings do not go away. Depression affects a person's ability to function in daily life. 1% to 3% of children meet the criteria for major depression, whereas 3% to 6% of teenagers meet these criteria.

What is going on in the body?
Children with depression appear sad. They no longer enjoy the things that used to make them happy. They also may appear agitated, hyperactive or irritable. Many times, it is the child's teacher that first notices problems with the child's behaviour at school.

What are the signs and symptoms of the condition?
The most common signs of depression in children are:
  • sadness and hopelessness
  • feelings of worthlessness
  • anger and rage
  • missed school or poor school performance
  • running away, fighting with peers or other "acting out" behaviours
  • changes in eating and sleeping habits
  • complaints of stomachache
  • complaints of headaches or fatigue
  • loss of interest in activities that they previously enjoyed
  • difficulty concentrating, restlessness or boredom
  • thoughts of death or suicide
What are the causes and risks of the condition?
Examples of causes and risks of depression in children include: What can be done to prevent the condition?
Depression may not be preventable. Counselling may help the child deal with depression.

How is the condition diagnosed?
Children who have symptoms of depression should be referred to a mental health professional that specialises in children. Diagnosing depression includes psychological testing, laboratory tests and consultation with other medical specialists.

What are the long-term effects of the condition?
Childhood depression usually responds to treatment. Depression in children and adolescents is associated with an increased risk of suicidal behaviours. It is very important for doctors and parents to take all threats of suicide seriously. Depression in childhood may predict a more severe illness in adult life.

What are the risks to others?
The family and friends of a child who suffers from depression can be affected by the person's illness.

What are the treatments for the condition?
Treatment for childhood depression includes both individual and family psychotherapy. Therapy is aimed at decreasing depressive thinking, improving social skills and increasing pleasant activities. Families need help in understanding what is going on. They also need support and guidance in interacting with their child. Antidepressant medications may be tried. However, these medications are not usually as effective in children as they are in adolescents and adults.

What are the side effects of the treatments?
Antidepressant medications may cause side effects in some people. These are usually mild and temporary. The most common side effects are: What happens after treatment for the condition?
Childhood depression may respond to treatment with therapy and medication. To prevent the recurrence of depression, it is recommended that treatment be continued for at least 6 months after symptoms have gone away.

How is the condition monitored?
A child on antidepressant medications may have blood drawn regularly for therapeutic drug levels. Parents need to watch their child for the development of worsening symptoms and report them to the doctor immediately.

Reviewer: HealthAnswers Australia Medical Review Panel
Editor: Dr David Taylor, Chief Medical Officer HealthAnswers Australia
Last Updated: 1/10/2001
Potential conflict of interest information for reviewers available on request

This website and article is not a substitute for independent professional advice. Nothing contained in this website is intended to be used as medical advice and it is not intended to be used to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease, nor should it be used for therapeutic purposes or as a substitute for your own health professional's advice.  All Health and any associated parties do not accept any liability for any injury, loss or damage incurred by use of or reliance on the information.


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