It is normal for all people – including children – to feel sad or have the blues occasionally. Clinical depression in children differs from normal bouts of sadness. Clinical depression in children is chronic, disrupts normal daily activities and leads to feelings of hopelessness, helplessness and despair. If left untreated, childhood clinical depression can lead to other complications such as suicide.
Does Childhood Clinical Depression Really Exist?
In the past, it was believed that children and adolescents did not have the mental maturity to experience clinical depression. These beliefs widely changed in the 1970s to 1980s, but even then childhood clinical depression was still considered a very rare mental health disorder. Today, almost all medical professionals acknowledge the existence of childhood clinical depression.
How Childhood Clinical Depression Differs From Adult Clinical Depression?
The main difference between childhood clinical depression and adult clinical depression is how the disorder presents itself. If you are a child with clinical depression you are more likely to have social problems and self-esteem issues. You may be irritable, aggressive and/or misbehave. These symptoms are called “masked symptoms” because they hide the real issue which is the depression.
If you are child with clinical depression you may go through a variety of emotional and psychological changes including sadness. Diagnosing childhood clinical depression can be much more difficult than diagnosing adult clinical depression.
How Prevalent Is Childhood Clinical Depression?
The prevalence rates on childhood clinical depression vary, but the numbers appear to be high in western nations. Most studies put the prevalence rate of childhood and teen depression at approximately 3-20%, with higher rates in adolescents than in children. In the UK alone, more than 50,000 children were prescribed anti-depressants in 2003. In the United States, there were at least 6.8 million teens taking anti-depressants from 2002-2006. The number of children taking anti-depressants has increased in the past decade and continues to grow with each passing year.
Childhood and teen clinical depression statistics are disputed by some professionals. Researchers claim that normal childhood and teen clinical depression is over-diagnosed as clinical depression. Other experts blame pharmaceutical companies for marketing anti-depressants for children, causing a surge in anti-depressant use amongst children and teens despite studies that show their ineffectiveness. Regardless, the prevalence of childhood clinical depression is steadily increasing. It is unknown if the increase is due to more accurate diagnoses or more awareness to the condition.
What are the Symptoms of Clinical Depression in Children and Teens?
If you are a child with clinical depression, your symptoms may vary. You may withdraw from social activities, indifference, behavioral problems, anger and/or irritability. In addition, you may experience emotional outbursts and/or have low energy. If you are an adolescent, you may experience symptoms that resemble those of adult clinical depression such as withdrawing from social activities, not enjoying activities that you used to enjoy, changes in eating or sleeping habits, a chronic sadness, thoughts about death or hurting yourself and/or drug/alcohol abuse. In both children and teens, signs of depression can include poor performance in school, troubles concentrating, constant boredom and/or health problems like stomach aches and headaches. In almost all cases of childhood clinical depression, you must meet the diagnostic criteria of another mental health disorder.
What Causes Clinical Depression in Children and Teens?
It has been virtually impossible to study the cause of childhood clinical depression. Environmental causes (like familial situation and home environment) are directly linked to childhood clinical depression. If your parents suffer from clinical depression or some other mental health disorder, you are more likely to experience some degree of clinical depression due to your predisposition to the condition and your unstable home environment.
There is ample evidence western societies are directly linked to the increase of childhood clinical depression rates. In the past, childhood clinical depression was incredibly rare and the family environment was more stable. In other words, most children were reared in two-parent households with a mother figure who was able to dedicate time to her children’s upbringing. In today’s western world, more children are reared in what can be considered an unstable home environment with high divorce rates and single-parent homes. With a surge in families where both parents work, children do not receive as much attention as in the past. Furthermore, financial support for low-income families has been reduced, which may account for the increase in poverty and ultimately child and teen clinical depression.
It is unclear whether or not these societal changes really increase the rates of childhood clinical depression or whether the standards for diagnosing a child with depression have just decreased. There has been an increase in other childhood problems related to clinical depression such as: frequent suicide attempts and drug abuse.
What Complications Are Associated With Childhood Clinical Depression?
The most serious risk associated with childhood clinical depression is an increased risk of suicide. By current statistics, suicide is the third-leading cause of death in adolescents in the United States. According to one study, a high school with approximately 2,000 students can expect 50 suicide attempts yearly.
Aside from the risk of suicide, childhood clinical depression can have many other complications such as disruptions in daily functioning, poor academic performance and/or have behavioral problems. If you are a child with clinical depression, you are more likely to abuse drugs or alcohol. In addition, if you suffer from childhood clinical depression you are also more likely to suffer from adult clinical depression.
How is Childhood Clinical Depression Treated?
There are many possible treatments for childhood clinical depression, but most experts recommend therapy – such as cognitive behavioral therapy or other methods. There are several medications approved for childhood depression but their use has been highly controversial. In studies of anti-depressants in children, those drugs were either only mildly effective or not effective at all. Furthermore, studies show that there is an increased rate of suicide in young adults who take anti-depressants. Despite these controversies, anti-depressants still remain the popular choice for the treatment of clinical depression in children and teens. In the United States, at least 50% of children taking anti-depressants are also in therapy.
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Son, S. E. & Kirchner, J. T. (2000). Depression in children and adolescents. American Family Physician.
Timimi, S. (2004). Rethinking childhood depression. British Medical Journal.