Depression Isn't Just a Grown-Up Problem

Armen Hareyan's picture

We typically think of childhood as a carefree time, but for some young people it's a period when they may be at risk for major depression. For adolescents in particular, but also for younger children, clinical depression can have serious consequences.

John March, M.D., chief of child and adolescent psychiatry at Duke University Medical Center, says the problem of childhood depression is greater than most people realize.

"Although it used to be thought that depression didn't occur in children or adolescents," says March, "it turns out that it's actually quite common. About one in 20 kids, that's 5 percent of kids, will have a major depressive episode."

March says parents and teachers should learn to recognize the warning signs of depression in children. This means being alert to changes in a child's behavior: loss of interest in friends and activities, changes in sleep patterns, loss of appetite, trouble concentrating or suicidal thoughts or behaviors.

Parental vigilance is especially important with adolescents who may be depressed, March says.


"Teenagers may engage in dangerous behavior, such as reckless driving or increased drinking or harming themselves in some way," he says. "In cases like this, we should be even more concerned.

"Depression can be a fatal disease," March adds. "Death by suicide is the third-leading cause of death among teenagers, and about one-half of those kids have a major depressive episode as part of their risk factor for either a suicide attempt or for completed suicide. This makes depression, both in the amount of suffering it causes and for the fact that it's associated with significant mortality, a major health problem."

Although there has been an increase in childhood depression in recent years, there is good news on the treatment front. March says research during the past decade has shown that talk therapy and medication, either separately or in combination, are effective for treating children suffering from depression.

"Cognitive behavioral psychotherapy and interpersonal psychotherapy, administered weekly over a period of about three months, are both effective in about 60 to 70 percent of kids with major depression," he says. "The serotonin reuptake inhibitors, medicines like Prozac and Zoloft, are also effective treatments for major depression."


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