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Recognizing Child and Adolescent Depression

Depression is more than just "feeling blue" or having a bad day. And it's different from feelings of grief or sorrow that follow a major loss, such as a death in the family. It's not a personal weakness or a character flaw. Children and teens with clinical depression cannot simply "snap out of it." Depression is a serious health problem that impacts feelings, thoughts and actions, and can appear as a physical illness. As many as one in eight teens and one in 33 children have clinical depression. Fortunately, depression in youth is treatable.

Signs of Depression:

* Persistent sadness
* Withdrawal from family, friends and activities that were once enjoyed
* Increased irritability or agitation
* Changes in eating and sleeping habits (e.g., significant weight loss, insomnia, excessive sleep)
* Frequent physical complaints, such as headaches and stomachaches
* Lack of enthusiasm or motivation
* Decreased energy level and chronic fatigue
* Play that involves excessive aggression toward self or others, or that involves persistently sad themes
* Indecision, lack of concentration or forgetfulness
* Feelings of worthlessness or excessive guilt
* Recurring thoughts of death or suicide

What can parents and other adults do if they suspect a child may have depression?

* Know the warning signs for depression, and note the duration, frequency and severity of troubling behavior.

* Get accurate information from libraries, hotlines, the Web and other sources.

* Take the child to see a mental health professional or doctor for evaluation and diagnosis if he or she is exhibiting several of the warning signs. The evaluation may include psychological testing, laboratory tests and consultation with other specialists.

* Ask questions about treatments and services. A comprehensive treatment plan may include psychotherapy, ongoing evaluation and, in some cases, medication. Optimally, the treatment plan is developed with the family, and whenever possible, the child.

* Talk to other families in your community or find a family network organization.

Depression and Suicide in Youth

Left untreated, depression can lead some youth to take their own lives. Suicide is the third leading cause of death for 15- to 24-year-olds and the sixth leading cause of death for 5- to 14-year-olds. Attempted suicides are even more common.

Warning signs of suicide

Four out of five teens that attempt suicide give clear warnings. If you suspect that a child or adolescent is suicidal, look for these warning signs:

* Threats of suicide - either direct or indirect.
* Verbal hints such as "I won't be around much longer" or "It's hopeless."
* Putting affairs in order (for example, giving or throwing away favorite possessions).
* Sudden cheerfulness after a period of depression.
* Hallucinations or bizarre thoughts.

What should parents and other adults do if they think a child is suicidal?

* Ask the child or teen if he or she feels depressed or thinks about suicide or death. Speaking openly and honestly allows the child to confide in you and gives you a chance to express your concern. Listen to his or her thoughts and feelings in a caring and respectful manner.

* Let the child or teen know that you care and want to help.

* Supply the child or teen with local resources, such as a crisis hotline or the location of a mental health clinic. If the child or teen is a student, find out if there are any available mental health professionals at the school and let the child know about them.

* Seek professional help. It is essential to seek expert advice from a mental health professional that has experience helping depressed children and teens. Alert key adults in the child's life-family, friends, teachers. Inform the child's parents or primary caregiver, and recommend that they seek professional assistance for their child or teen.

* Trust your instincts. If you think the situation may be serious, seek immediate help. If necessary, break a confidence in order to save a life.

Other Resources

National Mental Health Association

This will connect you with a crisis center in your area.

Covenant House Nine Line
800-999-9999. This is a 24-hour teen crisis line.

American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry

American Association of Suicidology

Suicide Prevention Advocacy Network

Source: National Mental Health Association. (n.d.). What's the matter? Child and adolescent depression. Retreived May 23, 2002, from
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