Teen depression is more than feeling sad

May 11, 2018

A teen girl at a student's desk. She looks depressed.

Anyone can be impacted by depression, including children and teenagers.

About 2 to 6 percent of children experience depression before puberty; after puberty, that rate increases to about 8 percent.

“It’s more common than most people think,” said Dr. Sheila Fountain, a pediatrician in Steamboat Springs and a member of the medical staff at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center.

In many cases, depression goes unnoticed. It’s estimated that half of teens are undiagnosed, while up to two in three teens don’t get the help they need.

But health professionals hope to change that with regular depression screenings. New guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics recommend screening children every year starting at age 12.

Below, Fountain outlines what to know when it comes to depression in children and teens.

What depression looks like

Depression involves much more than simply feeling sad.

“The most common symptoms include irritability or anger or even just feeling cranky,” Fountain said. “Teens might lose interest in activities or say they’re bored in class.”

Other symptoms include changes in appetite and sleep, feeling tired or low in energy, missing or doing poorly in school, and experiencing low self-esteem or feelings of worthlessness and guilt.

Typically, multiple symptoms will be experienced for more than two weeks. In the worst cases, children and teens may develop a preoccupation with death.

“It’s not always easy to recognize,” Fountain said. “Sometimes it just sneaks up on you. But once a teenager has depression, it impacts their entire life.”

Why depression strikes

When it comes to depression, it’s hard to pinpoint a cause.

“It’s not simple,” Fountain said. “There are so many different causes that interact to create depression.”

Depression can stem from biological issues, including how neurons connect and release chemicals; chronic medical issues such as hypothyroidism, anemia, diabetes and mononucleosis; substance abuse and stress –  typically social stress for children and teens – and genetics. A family history of depression is one of the biggest risk factors for whether a child will struggle with depression.

“We tell kids, ‘It’s not your fault. There’s not anything you did wrong that caused this, but it’s how your brain is working, your genetics, things you don’t have control over,’” Fountain said. “And we assure them that they will get better.”

Screening for depression

During well-child checks, written questionnaires are given to pre-teens and teens, with questions such as whether they’ve felt down or uninterested in activities over a period of time.

“They usually are pretty honest,” Fountain said. “I feel like they’re looking for a place to tell someone. In the doctor’s office with a provider they know, they can be honest with how they feel.”

Parents shouldn’t hesitate to bring a child in for a screening any time they have a concern.

“Family members and primary care providers are the front line in depression screening,” Fountain said. “A parent who sees changes should bring their child in to be evaluated, because kids don’t often look at their mom or dad and say, ‘Hey, I’m depressed. I need help.’”

Getting help

Don’t be discouraged by a diagnosis of depression: treatment is often very successful for children and teens.

“Sixty percent of children and adolescents respond to medication. When you add in cognitive behavioral therapy, that response goes up to 70 percent,” Fountain said. “The combination of both therapy and medication is huge, especially in initial treatment.”

Regular exercise, a healthy diet, good sleep habits and boundaries with technology are also important.

After a diagnosis of depression, Fountain sees children and teens again in two to four weeks, and regularly after that to check in on their progress.

“We keep them coming back for monitoring so they’re not out there alone, navigating this by themselves,” Fountain said.

With the right treatment, children and teens often experience positive changes quickly.

“Remission is the goal,” Fountain said. “Usually in four to six weeks you’re going to see a real improvement in how they feel. And that gives kids and parents a lot of hope.”

For more information, Fountain recommends the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry’s website – www.aacap.org.

About the author

Susan Cunningham lives in the Colorado Rocky Mountains with her husband and two daughters. She enjoys science nearly as much as writing: she’s traveled to the bottom of the ocean via submarine to observe life at hydrothermal vents, camped out on an island of birds to study tern behavior, and now spends time in an office writing and analyzing data. She blogs about writing and science at susancunninghambooks.com.