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Major depression is one of the mental, emotional, and behavior disorders that can appear during childhood and adolescence and affects a person's thoughts, feelings, behavior, and body.  Major depression in children and adolescents is serious; it is more than "the blues." Depression can lead to school failure, alcohol or other drug use, and even suicide.  If someone has difficulty coping with everyday activities and responsibilities, difficulty getting along with others, and suffers from low self-esteem, look for other common signs of depression:

  • sadness that won't go away;
  • hopelessness, boredom;
  • unexplained irritability or crying
  • loss of interest in usual activities;
  • changes in eating or sleeping habits;
  • alcohol or substance abuse
  • missed school or poor school performance;
  • threats or attempts to run away from home;
  • outbursts of shouting, complaining;
  • reckless behavior;
  • aches and pains that don't get better with treatment;
  • thoughts about death or suicide.

Adolescents with major depression are likely to identify themselves as depressed before their parents suspect a problem. The same may be true for children.

How common is depression?

Population studies show that at any point in time 10 to 15 percent of children and adolescents have some symptoms of depression. Having a family history of depression, particularly a parent who had depression at an early age, also increases the chances that a child or adolescent may develop depression. Once a young person has experienced a major depression, he or she is at risk of developing another depression within the next 5 years. This young person is also at risk for other mental health problems.

What help is available for a young person with depression?

While several types of antidepressant medications can be effective to treat adults with depression, these medications may not be as effective in treating children and adolescents. Care must be used in prescribing and monitoring all medication.

Many mental health care providers use "talk" treatments to help children and adolescents with depression. A child or adolescent in need of treatment or services and his or her family may need a plan of care based on the severity and duration of symptoms. Optimally, this plan is developed with the family, service providers, and a service coordinator, who is referred to as a case manager. Whenever possible, the child or adolescent is involved in decisions. This "system of care" is designed to improve the child's ability to function in all areas of life--at home, at school, and in the community. For more information on systems of care, call 1.800.789.2647.

What can parents do?

  • Make careful notes about the behaviors that concern them. Note how long the behaviors have been going on, how often they occur, and how severe they seem.
  • Make an appointment with a mental health professional or the child's doctor for evaluation and diagnosis.
  • Get accurate information from libraries, hotlines, or other sources.
  • Ask questions about treatments and services.
  • Talk to other families in their community.
  • Find family network organizations.