What is Depression? And What Does it Look Like in Children?

This article will briefly explore one of the more common mental health concerns for children today – depression. According to the CDC, approximately 3.2% (1.9 million) of children aged 3-17 have been diagnosed with depression. That makes depression an important area for parents and those who work with children to understand. But what exactly is depression, and what does it look like in children and adolescents?

Here are some of the common symptoms to watch for:

  • Depressed mood

    • This can include expressed sadness by the child or adolescent, including feeling sad, feeling hopeless, etc., but it can also include depressed mood observed by others, such as increased crying, etc. One very important note regarding depression in children and adolescents is that depressed mood can sometimes present more as irritability than sadness. Because we think of sadness being a hallmark feature of depression, sometimes we see children with irritability and do not consider depression and may instead think more along the lines of behavioral problems or disorders, or something else entirely. So it is important to remember that especially in children and adolescents, depression may present with irritability rather than sadness. Related to depressed mood, feelings of worthlessness is also a symptom.
  • Lost interest in pleasurable activities

    • Again, the child may either express a lack of interest, or a lack of interest can be observed by others. However, this symptom refers to a significant change or disengagement from activities the child or teenager usually finds pleasurable.
  • Suicidal thinking

    • Thoughts of this nature can range in severity. This could be increased thoughts of death, suicidal ideation with no plan, suicidal ideation with a specific plan, or suicide attempt.
      • Note: While this article’s main focus is not on suicide and mentions it only as a symptom of suicide, it should be noted that parents are encouraged to take any suicidal thinking from their children seriously. Parents should contact a mental health provider as soon as possible, or if unable to do this, another professional who can help guide the family (pediatrician, teacher, police officer, etc.).
  • Fluctuations in weight and/or appetite

    • Significant weight loss or gain that is unintentional or a decrease or increase in appetite is a symptom of depression. This is another symptom that can be different in children. For children, this could include not gaining weight as expected.
  • Being more or less active than usual

  • Sleeping more or less than usual

  • Increased fatigue

  • Trouble concentrating, thinking, making decisions, etc.

Most people experience some of these symptoms from time to time, so experiencing some of these symptoms for a few days is not a significant cause for concern. However, if we notice children exhibit several of these symptoms most days for more than two weeks, it is time to talk to a pediatrician or mental health provider.

Here are a few other facts about depression:

  • Several sources have indicated that depression rates are increasing.

  • Rates of depression increase with age, meaning that more adolescents are diagnosed than younger children.

  • Comorbidity:

    • Comorbidity in this context refers to when a child is diagnosed with more than one disorder. According to the CDC, children with depression are more likely to have a second diagnosis than any other disorder. The CDC reported that among children diagnosed with depression, 3 in 4 of those children were also diagnosed with anxiety, and 1 in 2 children diagnosed with depression were also diagnosed with behavioral problems.
  • Treatment:

    • Depression is one of the most commonly treated mental health disorders for adults and children alike. This is both due to the higher prevalence of depression, and children with depression tend to receive treatment at higher rates than other disorders. According to the CDC, approximately 8 in 10 children with depression receive treatment, compared to 6 in 10 children receiving treatment for anxiety or 5 in 10 children with behavioral disorders receiving treatment. Because depression is treated so often, there are many versions of evidence-based treatments for depression that can be sought from a variety of mental health providers. Additionally, physicians or child psychiatrists can prescribe medications for depression that is severe or difficult to treat.

Thanks for reading! If your child experiences these symptoms or you have more questions regarding depression, talk to your pediatrician or mental health provider about what treatments might be available and appropriate for your child. If you are in need of a mental health provider Arkansas Families First is here to help. https://arfamiliesfirst.com/clinicians-staff/