Depression in children and adolescents is a state of sadness and the inability to enjoy previously favorite activities. While it may manifest similarly to major depressive disorder in adults, this illness in youth may present as increased irritability or self-destructive behavior.
Depression in all ages is diagnosed by the same criteria as outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition (DSM-IV). The definition of a major depressive episode is a syndrome with manifestations that occur in the same 2-week span. At least 1 of the following symptoms must be present in this period:
Additionally, at least 4 of the following must be present:
In addition to the above signs, depressed individuals may exhibit atypical features or even catatonic features that must be assessed.
The overall clinical presentation should include poor performance academically, behaviorally, socially, and other key aspects as well.
When evaluating the patient, the clinician must distinguish a major depressive episode from other disorders such as seasonal mood disorder, schizoaffective disorder, schizophrenia, etc. Also, family history should be assessed as depression can be passed from one generation to the next .
Clinical evaluation includes the patient's personal and family history, a physical and psychiatric exam, and studies to exclude other etiologies such as infection, neurologic disorder, endocrine disorder, tumor, or another illness.
The patient's clinical presentation will guide the selection of tests which may include complete blood count (CBC) to ascertain the presence of infection or anemia. Further investigations such as serum electrolytes, creatinine, creatinine clearance, blood urea nitrogen (BUN), and urine osmolality may be necessary to determine if renal causes are responsible for the patient's symptoms. Another important consideration is performing thyroids functions tests to rule out a thyroid disorder.
As expected, a full psychiatric assessment is essential. The survey known as the Children’s Depression Inventory can help the clinician understand the severity of the depression.
The therapeutic approach depends on the overall clinical presentation and factors such as the severity and chronicity of symptoms, patient's age, previous history of depression, past response to treatment, compliance, and others conditions as well.
Younger children may warrant psychotherapy initially and antidepressants in more severe cases. In adolescents, an effective regimen includes both psychotherapy and antidepressants. Furthermore, CBT ( Cognitive-based therapy) is very helpful as evidenced by numerous randomized clinical trials.
With regards to antidepressants, the most common choices for depressed children and adolescents are selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) which include sertraline, fluoxetine, and paroxetine. In contrast, tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs) are not as effective in children and tend to cause more side effects. Note that medications such as TCAs require periodic monitoring of plasma levels to avoid toxicity.
Since depressive episodes are recurring, treatment should be continued for a year or more after recovery.
Patients should be assessed for suicidal thoughts and their risk for executing self-harm. Close monitoring and possibly even hospitalization may be required to protect suicidal patients or those without adequate home supervision .
A key component in the treatment of depressed individuals is the support provided by family, the physicians and mental health team, and school teachers. Regular individual and family psychotherapy sessions should be part of the patient's management. Also, parents or guardians must be included in treatment planning and supervision of the child. Additionally, social workers can find emotional and financial resources to fund the treatment of the children.
There were questions raised concerning the small risk of suicidal ideations and attempts associated with antidepressant use in the pediatric population. However, a reduced use of this medication has been linked to higher suicide rates. This controversy led to studies investigating the issue further, in which the results confirmed that antidepressants may increase suicidal thoughts and attempts. But since the benefits likely outweigh the risks, a vast majority of physicians will proceed with treatment under the condition that the medical team and family are vigilant and cautious about warning signs.
Depression in youth may lead to marked morbidity and mortality as this disease can be chronic and recurring. Furthermore, this young population is susceptible to difficulties in the school and social settings and are at high risk for poor outcomes such as substance abuse and suicide .
With regards to treatment, approximately 50% to 60% will experience success with their initial psychotherapy or medication. Of the remainder, those that fail a primary trial of antidepressants will tend to respond to other drugs and/or psychotherapy.
A major depressive episode may resolve spontaneously within 1 to 2 years . However, this disease is characterized by elevated relapsing rates as 40% experience a recurrence within 2 years of remission and as many as 70% have a repeating episode within 5 years.
The etiology of childhood depression is likely multifactorial in origin. The genetic and environmental interplay is complex as genetic factors account for as much as 40% variance while environmental factors and their interaction with genetics are responsible for 60% of variances  .
In terms of patient demographics, both boys and girls have similar rates of depression. However, adolescent females have double the prevalence of their male counterparts. Additionally, childhood depression is more common in the indigenous population  as well as in children with long-term medical illness .
The specific contributions of genetic and environmental factors to childhood depression are yet to be elucidated. Furthermore, the studies investigating the pathophysiology of this disease in children have yielded findings not observed in adults. In contrast to depressed adults, children with depression have not exhibited hypersecretion of cortisol . Depressed children, however, have demonstrated serotonin dysregulation, which is associated with poor stress and emotional reactions, mood disorders and minimized impulse control.
Furthermore, studies suggest that pediatric depression is linked to an interruption in the motivation-and-reward neurologic pathway. Specifically, imaging studies show disruptions in key regions of the brain such as the prefrontal cortex, amygdala, and anterior cingulate which are known to regulate emotions, stress response, behavioral inhibition, and occurrence of symptoms of depression .
There are measures that parents, caretakers, and teachers can undertake to help reduce the risk of depression in children and adolescents. Such efforts include providing support and resources to decrease stress and trauma. Additionally, cognitive behavioral prevention programs in the school, community or internet settings could be very helpful  . In this modern age, there are creative technological methods that can also influence children and adolescents to think more positively and develop a good outlook on life and how to deal with difficult issues.
Since psychiatric conditions may coexist together, the clinician must assess the individual thoroughly and screen for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), anxiety, and others as well. Moreover, treatment of these could reduce the risk of depression.
Prevention of self-harm
Since suicidal ideations and attempts are a major risk in depressed individuals, safety is a top priority. The risk for self-harm and other behaviors such as substance use should be assessed during the frequent follow-up appointments. Parents should ensure adequate supervision and implement safety plans.
Management of the patients includes finding the correct medication and dose, addressing any present side effects, and encouraging compliance. Additionally, controlling the depression and preventing relapse is crucial as recurrence is incredibly likely.
Depression in the pediatric population is relatively common especially in children with comorbid psychiatric and developmental disorders. It is also observed in those who experienced trauma or medical illnesses. Childhood depression is associated with high recurrence rates and often continues into adulthood. It is believed that the cause of depression is likely multifactorial with environmental factors and genetics playing a key role.
The age-adjusted diagnostic criteria for depression in children is essentially the same as for adults. This illness manifests as a depressed or irritable mood and/or anhedonia. Additionally, the patient may experience fatigue and/or difficulties with concentration, sleeping, and eating. Overall, children and adolescents with depression suffer from poor academic, social and family functioning.
Early diagnosis and treatment are paramount. Therefore, as soon as parents, other adult caretakers, or teachers recognize the signs and symptoms, the young individual must undergo careful assessment by the appropriate professionals. This includes obtaining the patient's personal and family history, and performing a full psychiatric test among other possible relevant studies.
Once the diagnosis is established, the choice of treatment is based on the consideration of the severity of the illness, the patient's age, whether the patient has had previous episodes and/or treatments, the patient's and family's motivation for treatment, and other factors as well. Cognitive-based therapy (CBT) is the key component in the treatment of depressed youth. Additionally, antidepressants may also be used in certain cases.
Since the disease has a high chance of relapsing and there are increased incidences of suicides in such patients, it is pertinent that they attend frequent follow-up appointments and comply with therapy and treatment. Moreover, parents are often encouraged to utilize the available resources to help their children.
Depression affects not just adults but children and adolescents as well. In fact, approximately 5% of the young population suffer from depression at any given time. Children that are susceptible to depression are those who suffer a loss, or experience stress, illness or trauma. Additionally, individuals who have psychiatric, developmental, or attention disorders are prone to developing depression. Furthermore, a family history also increases the risk.
What are the signs of depression?
Children and adolescents with depression often feel sad and experience difficulty functioning academically, behaviorally, and socially. Sometimes a child does not look sad but can exhibit depression in other ways. Examples of childhood depression may include a child who previously enjoyed playing with friends but now has withdrawn socially; or a child who misses school days, can not concentrate, and is doing poorly in school; or a child who is behaving badly and causing trouble at school and home. Of course, depression should always be suspected when an individual expresses interest in suicide. The following are symptoms of depression:
How is childhood depression diagnosed?
As soon as the signs and symptoms are recognized, the parents must promptly seek care and treatment for the child. The clinician will perform full personal and family evaluation and gain a complete understanding of the patient's symptoms. Sometimes, blood tests will be performed to rule out other causes of the patient's symptoms.
How is the childhood depression treated?
The earlier the treatment, the better for the depressed individual. Some of the most effective ways of treatment are cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and interpersonal psychotherapy (IPT). Additionally, family therapy is also very helpful for the children as well as the parents.
There are cases where therapy is not sufficient by itself. Therefore, antidepressants are added as well.
What is the prognosis?
Childhood depression has a high recurrence rate that parents and caretakers should be aware of. Hence close and frequent follow-up appointments with the medical team are absolutely essential.
It is important to remember that children and adolescents with depression are at increased risk of suicidal thoughts and attempts. Therefore, they require supervision. The mental health professional and the parents can formulate safety plans to ensure this. Also, parents should watch out for self-destructive behaviors such as substance abuse.
What can the family do?
Treating a child will require a team effort as family and friends can provide major support for the depressed child or adolescent. For example, attending family therapy session, staying up to date on follow-up appointments, and showing love and compassion are all crucial. Also, parents can attend support groups and draw encouragement from others who are also dealing with similar situations.