What is depression in children and teens?

Teens recovering from depression: Overview

Taking good care of yourself is important as you recover from depression. In time, your symptoms may fade as your treatment takes hold. Don't give up. Instead, focus your energy on getting better.

Your mood could improve over time. Focus on things that can help you feel better, such as being with friends and family, eating well, and getting enough rest. But take things slowly. Don't do too much too soon. You may start to feel better gradually.

Depression in children and teens

Depression is a serious mental health condition. It's normal for children to be moody or sad sometimes. But children who are depressed may be sad all the time. Sometimes they may seem grumpy or bored. Or they may lose interest in activities they usually enjoy. They may feel hopeless, worthless, or guilty. They may have trouble concentrating, thinking, or making decisions. They may think a lot about death or suicide.

Counseling and education for the child and the family are usually the first steps in treating depression.

Lowering the chance of depression coming back in a child or teen

Some people have depression symptoms that come back. Depression often comes and goes during a lifetime. But there are some things you can do to help lower the chance of your child's depression coming back.

  • Know your child's risk of depression returning.

    Some people are more likely to have depression return than others. Talk to your doctor to find out how likely your child is to have depression come back. The risk is higher if your child:

    • Has a family member who's had depression.
    • Has had depression symptoms that continue after treatment.
  • Be sure your child stays with the treatment.

    A common cause of depression returning is stopping treatment too soon. Help your child:

    • Take medicines exactly as prescribed. Your child may need to keep taking the medicine for several months after the symptoms have subsided to prevent depression from coming back.
    • Continue counseling. It may help prevent depression from returning, especially if your child has had multiple episodes of depression. Talk with your child's counselor if your child is having a hard time attending their sessions or thinks the sessions aren't working. Don't let your child just stop going.
  • Encourage healthy choices.

    Help your child:

    • Eat healthy foods. Include fruits, vegetables, beans, and whole grains in your meals each day.
    • Get regular exercise. Encourage your child to walk or jog, ride a bike, or play sports with friends.
    • Keep a regular sleep schedule. Try to make sure your child gets enough sleep.
    • Connect with family members, teachers, and friends who can provide encouragement and support.
  • Know the warning signs of depression coming back.

    The two main symptoms are:

    • Feeling sad or hopeless.
    • Losing interest in daily activities.

    Get help right away if you notice that depression symptoms are coming back.

What are the symptoms of depression in children and teens?

Children or teens with depression may be sad most of the time and show a loss of interest in activities they usually enjoy. They may have changes in their sleeping or eating patterns. They might also think about death or suicide. These symptoms occur nearly every day and last at least 2 weeks.

How is depression in children and teens treated?

Treatment usually includes education about depression, professional counseling, and medicine. If your child's symptoms are mild to moderate, counseling or lifestyle changes may be enough to help your child feel better. But if your child's symptoms don't improve with counseling, your child's doctor may recommend that medicine be added. If your child's symptoms are severe, a combination of antidepressants and counseling may work better than if only one of these treatments is used.

Education

Education about depression can be provided by a doctor or in family therapy. Some important things for you and your child to learn include how to:

  • Be sure your child is following a treatment plan. This often includes taking medicine correctly and going to counseling appointments.
  • Know the signs of a relapse. Learn what to do to prevent depression from returning.
  • Know the signs of suicidal behavior, how serious they are, and how to respond. Your child and your child's doctor may develop a plan to keep your child safe if your child shows signs of self-harm.
  • Identify signs of a manic episode. This is a bout of extremely high mood and energy or irritability. It's a sign of bipolar disorder.
  • Seek treatment if you are a parent with depression. If you have depression that isn't treated, it may be harder for your child to recover.

Counseling

Several types of counseling can be used to treat depression. They may include:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy. It can help children and teens change negative thoughts that make them feel bad.
  • Interpersonal therapy. It focuses on helping teens with relationships. It helps them find solutions for problems that are bothering them.

It's important to find a mental health professional you and your child trust and feel comfortable with. Together you will develop an action plan to treat your child's depression.

Medicine

Antidepressant medicine may be an option if a child is very depressed. Combining antidepressant treatment with counseling may work best. But what works best may depend on the age of your child.

There are several types of antidepressants. Some common ones include:

  • Fluoxetine.
  • Escitalopram.
  • Sertraline.

Before prescribing an antidepressant, your doctor will ask your child some questions to check for suicidal thoughts. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has issued an advisory on antidepressant medicines and the risk of suicide. Talk to your doctor about these possible side effects and the warning signs of suicide.

The safety and long-term effects of medicines used to treat depression in children and teens are not fully known. Talk to your child's doctor about the risks and benefits of these medicines. Together you can decide if medicine is right for your child.

Make sure that your child takes the medicine as prescribed. After taking an antidepressant for a while, people often feel like they are "cured." They may think they no longer need treatment. But when medicine is stopped too early, symptoms usually return.

Other treatment

In some cases, the doctor may recommend electroconvulsive therapy for an older child or a teen who has severe depression or doesn't respond to other treatment.

Why is it important to get treatment for a child or teen with depression?

The sooner your child starts treatment, the sooner your child will start to feel better. Waiting to seek treatment for depression may mean a longer and more difficult recovery.

Teens: How can you care for yourself to lower the chance of depression coming back?

  • Take your medicines exactly as prescribed. Call your doctor if you think you are having a problem with your medicine.
    • Continue to take your medicine after your symptoms improve. Don't stop taking them without talking to your doctor.
    • If your depression keeps coming back, your doctor may recommend that you take medicine even longer.
  • Continue counseling. It may help prevent depression from returning, especially if you've had multiple episodes of depression. Talk with your counselor if you are having a hard time attending your sessions or you think the sessions aren't working. Don't just stop going.
  • Eat healthy foods. Include fruits, vegetables, beans, and whole grains in your diet each day.
  • Get regular exercise. Go for a walk or jog, ride your bike, or play sports with friends.
  • See your doctor right away if you have new symptoms or feel that your depression is coming back.
  • Keep a regular sleep schedule. Try for 8 to 10 hours of sleep a night.
  • Avoid using illegal drugs or marijuana and drinking alcohol.

Where to get help 24 hours a day, 7 days a week

If you or someone you know talks about suicide, self-harm, a mental health crisis, a substance use crisis, or any other kind of emotional distress, get help right away. You can:

  • Call the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988.
  • Call 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255).
  • Text HOME to 741741 to access the Crisis Text Line.

Consider saving these numbers in your phone.

Go to 988lifeline.org for more information or to chat online.

How is depression diagnosed in a child or teen?

A doctor may do a physical exam and ask questions about your child's past health. The doctor may ask your child about their feelings, changes in eating habits, energy level, and interest in daily tasks. The doctor may also ask how well your child is sleeping and how well they can focus on tasks. This may be a talk between the doctor and your child, or your child may fill out a form. The doctor may also ask you questions.

The doctor may also ask questions about other problems. Children with depression often have other problems too, such as anxiety, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), or an eating disorder. Finding other problems can help your child get the right diagnosis and treatment.

Some diseases can cause symptoms that look like depression. So your child may have tests to help rule out physical problems, such as a low thyroid level or anemia.

Teens: How can you care for yourself while you recover from depression?

Be realistic

  • If you have a large task to do, break it up into smaller steps you can handle. Then just do what you can.
  • Think about putting off important decisions until your depression has lifted. If you have plans that will have a major impact on your life, such as dropping out of school or choosing a college, try to wait a bit. Talk it over with friends and family who can help you look at the overall picture.
  • Reach out to people for help. Don't isolate yourself. Let your family and friends help you. Find people you can trust and confide in, and talk to them.
  • Be patient, and be kind to yourself. Remember that depression isn't your fault and isn't something you can overcome with willpower alone. Treatment is necessary for depression, just like for any other illness. Feeling better takes time. Your mood will improve little by little.

Stay active

  • Stay busy and get outside. Join a school club, or take part in school, church, or other social activities. Become a volunteer.
  • Get plenty of exercise every day. Go for a walk or jog, ride your bike, or play sports with friends. Talk with your doctor about an exercise program. Exercise can help with mild depression.
  • Ask a friend to do things with you. You could play a computer game, go shopping, or listen to music, for example.

Take care of yourself

  • Eat a balanced diet with plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein. If you have lost your appetite, eat small snacks rather than large meals.
  • Do not drink alcohol or use drugs.
  • Get enough sleep. If you have problems sleeping, try to keep your bedroom dark and quiet, go to bed at the same time every night, get up at the same time every morning, and avoid drinks with caffeine after 5 p.m.
  • Avoid sleeping pills unless they are prescribed by the doctor treating your depression. Sleeping pills may make you groggy during the day. And they may interact with other medicine you are taking.
  • If you have any other illnesses, such as diabetes, make sure to continue with your treatment. Tell your doctor about all of the medicines you take, including those with or without a prescription.

Follow your treatment plan

  • If your doctor prescribed medicine, take it exactly as prescribed. Call your doctor if you think you are having a problem with your medicine.
    • If you don't notice any improvement in 3 weeks, talk to your doctor.
    • Antidepressants can make you feel tired, dizzy, or nervous. Some people have dry mouth, constipation, headaches, or diarrhea. Many of these side effects are mild and will go away on their own after you have been taking the medicine for a few weeks. Some may last longer. Talk to your doctor if side effects are bothering you too much. You might be able to try a different medicine.
  • Do not take medicines that weren't prescribed for you. They may interfere with medicines you may be taking for depression, or they may make your depression worse.
  • If you have a counselor, go to all your appointments.
  • Work with your doctor to create a safety plan. A plan covers warning signs of self-harm. And it lists coping strategies and trusted family, friends, and professionals you can reach out to if you have thoughts about hurting yourself.

Where to get help 24 hours a day, 7 days a week

If you or someone you know talks about suicide, self-harm, a mental health crisis, a substance use crisis, or any other kind of emotional distress, get help right away. You can:

  • Call the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988.
  • Call 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255).
  • Text HOME to 741741 to access the Crisis Text Line.

Consider saving these numbers in your phone.

Go to 988lifeline.org for more information or to chat online.

What increases the risk of depression in a child or teen?

Children or teens may be more likely to have depression if someone in their family has had it. They may also be at a higher risk after experiencing stressful or traumatic events, such as being bullied. Other things that increase the risk of depression include having other mental health conditions or experiencing abuse.

How do you know if your child is depressed?

Your child may need to be checked for depression if your child is always sad or grouchy with family and friends or shows less pleasure in doing things that they used to like to do. Ask your doctor about other signs of depression.

How can you help lower the chance of depression coming back in a child or teen?

There are some things you can do to help lower the chance of your child's depression coming back. Be sure your child stays with their treatment plan. You can encourage healthy choices, like regular exercise. But depression is a complicated condition. Sometimes even the best treatment and support may not prevent depression from returning.

What is depression in children and teens?

Depression is a serious mental health condition that can take the joy from a child's life. It's normal for a child to be moody or sad at times, such as after the death of a pet. But if these feelings last for more than 2 weeks, they may be a sign of depression.

What causes depression in children and teens?

What causes depression is not well understood. There are many factors that may be involved. It tends to run in families. And if something stressful or traumatic happens to a child or teen, they may be more likely to get depression.

What other problems are common in children and teens who have depression?

Often a child who has depression will also have one or more other problems. These problems may occur before a young person becomes depressed. For example, a child or teen may have:

  • An anxiety disorder.
  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
  • An eating disorder.
  • A learning disorder.
  • Serious behavior problems (conduct disorder). Some children develop conduct disorder after they become depressed.

A child or teen with depression is also at a higher risk for other issues. These include:

  • Poor school or job performance.
  • Problems in relationships with peers and family members.
  • Early pregnancy.
  • Physical illness.

Teens recovering from depression: When to call

Call 911 anytime you think you may need emergency care. For example, call if:

  • You are thinking about suicide or are threatening suicide.
  • You feel you cannot stop from hurting yourself or someone else.
  • You hear or see things that aren't real.
  • You think or speak in a bizarre way that is not like your usual behavior.

Where to get help 24 hours a day, 7 days a week

If you or someone you know talks about suicide, self-harm, a mental health crisis, a substance use crisis, or any other kind of emotional distress, get help right away. You can:

  • Call the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988.
  • Call 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255).
  • Text HOME to 741741 to access the Crisis Text Line.

Consider saving these numbers in your phone.

Go to 988lifeline.org for more information or to chat online.

Call your doctor now or seek immediate medical care if:

  • You are talking or writing about death.
  • You are drinking a lot of alcohol or using drugs.

Watch closely for changes in your health, and be sure to contact your doctor if:

  • You find it hard or it's getting harder to deal with school, a job, family, or friends.
  • You think your treatment is not helping or you are not getting better.
  • Your symptoms get worse or you get new symptoms.
  • You have any problems with your antidepressant medicines, such as side effects, or you are thinking about stopping your medicine.
  • You are having manic behavior, such as having very high energy, needing less sleep than normal, or showing risky behavior such as spending money you don't have or abusing others verbally or physically.

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The content above contains general health information provided by Healthwise, Incorporated, and reviewed by its medical experts. This content should not replace the advice of your healthcare provider. Not all treatments or services described are offered as services by us. For recommended treatments, please consult your healthcare provider.