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Depressive Disorders in Children and Adolescents

By

Josephine Elia

, MD, Sidney Kimmel Medical College of Thomas Jefferson University

Last full review/revision Apr 2021| Content last modified Apr 2021
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Topic Resources

Depressive disorders are characterized by sadness or irritability that is severe or persistent enough to interfere with functioning or cause considerable distress. Diagnosis is by history and examination. Treatment is with antidepressants, supportive and cognitive-behavioral therapy, or a combination of these modalities.

Depressive disorders in children and adolescents include

  • Disruptive mood dysregulation disorder

  • Major depressive disorder

  • Persistent depressive disorder (dysthymia)

The term depression is often loosely used to describe the low or discouraged mood that results from disappointment (eg, serious illness) or loss (eg, death of a loved one). However, such low moods, unlike depression, occur in waves that tend to be tied to thoughts or reminders of the triggering event, resolve when circumstances or events improve, may be interspersed with periods of positive emotion and humor, and are not accompanied by pervasive feelings of worthlessness and self-loathing. The low mood usually lasts days rather than weeks or months, and suicidal thoughts and prolonged loss of function are much less likely. Such low moods are more appropriately called demoralization or grief. However, events and stressors that cause demoralization and grief can also precipitate a major depressive episode.

The etiology of depression in children and adolescents is unknown but is similar to etiology in adults Etiology Depressive disorders are characterized by sadness severe enough or persistent enough to interfere with function and often by decreased interest or pleasure in activities. Exact cause is unknown... read more ; it is believed to result from interactions of genetically determined risk factors and environmental stress (particularly early life stress such as abuse, injury, natural disaster, domestic violence, death of family member, and deprivation [1 General reference Depressive disorders are characterized by sadness or irritability that is severe or persistent enough to interfere with functioning or cause considerable distress. Diagnosis is by history and... read more ]).

General reference

  • 1. LeMoult J, Humphreys KL, Tracy A, et al: Meta-analysis: Exposure to early life stress and risk for depression in childhood and adolescence. J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry 59(7);842-855, 2020. doi: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jaac.2019.10.011

Symptoms and Signs of Depressive Disorders

Basic manifestations of depressive disorders in children and adolescents are similar to those in adults but are related to typical concerns of children, such as schoolwork and play. Children may be unable to explain inner feelings or moods. Depression should be considered when previously well-performing children do poorly in school, withdraw from society, or commit delinquent acts.

In some children with a depressive disorder, the predominant mood is irritability rather than sadness (an important difference between childhood and adult forms). The irritability associated with childhood depression may manifest as overactivity and aggressive, antisocial behavior.

In children with intellectual disability, depressive or other mood disorders may manifest as somatic symptoms and behavioral disturbances.

Disruptive mood dysregulation disorder

Manifestations include the presence of the following for 12 months (with no period of 3 months without all of them):

  • Severe recurrent temper outbursts (eg, verbal rage and/or physical aggression toward people or property) that are grossly out of proportion to the situation and that occur 3 times/week on average

  • Temper outbursts that are inconsistent with developmental level

  • An irritable, angry mood present every day for most of the day and observed by others (eg, parents, teachers, peers)

The outbursts and angry mood must occur in 2 of 3 settings (at home or school, with peers).

Major depressive disorder

Major depressive disorder is a discrete depressive episode lasting 2 weeks. It occurs in as many as 2% of children and 5% of adolescents. Major depressive disorder can first occur at any age but is more common after puberty. Untreated, major depression may remit in 6 to 12 months. Risk of recurrence is higher in patients who have severe episodes, who are younger, or who have had multiple episodes. Persistence of even mild depressive symptoms during remission is a strong predictor of recurrence.

For diagnosis, 1 of the following must be present for most of the day nearly every day during the same 2-week period:

  • Feeling sad or being observed by others to be sad (eg, tearful) or irritable

  • Loss of interest or pleasure in almost all activities (often expressed as profound boredom)

In addition, 4 of the following must be present:

  • Decrease in weight (in children, failure to make the expected weight gain) or decrease or increase in appetite

  • Insomnia or hypersomnia

  • Psychomotor agitation or retardation observed by others (not self-reported)

  • Fatigue or loss of energy

  • Decreased ability to think, concentrate, and make choices

  • Recurrent thoughts of death (not just fear of dying) and/or suicidal ideation or plans

  • Feelings of worthlessness (ie, feeling rejected and unloved) or excessive or inappropriate guilt

Persistent depressive disorder (dysthymia)

Dysthymia is a persistent depressed or irritable mood that lasts for most of the day for more days than not for 1 year plus 2 of the following:

  • Poor appetite or overeating

  • Insomnia or hypersomnia

  • Low energy or fatigue

  • Low self-esteem

  • Poor concentration

  • Feelings of hopelessness

Symptoms may be more or less intense than those of a major depressive disorder.

A major depressive episode may occur before the onset or during the first year (ie, before the duration criterion is met for persistent depressive disorder).

Diagnosis of Depressive Disorders

  • Clinical evaluation

Diagnosis of depressive disorders is based on symptoms and signs, including the criteria listed above.

Sources of information include an interview with the child or adolescent and information from parents and teachers. Several brief questionnaires are available for screening. They help identify some depressive symptoms but cannot be used alone for diagnosis. Specific close-ended questions help determine whether patients have the symptoms required for diagnosis of major depression, based on Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fifth Edition (DSM-5) criteria.

History should include causative factors such as domestic violence, sexual abuse and exploitation, and drug adverse effects. Questions about suicidal behavior Suicidal Behavior in Children and Adolescents Suicidal behavior includes completed suicide, attempted suicide (with at least some intent to die), and suicide gestures; suicidal ideation is thoughts and plans about suicide. Psychiatric referral... read more (eg, ideation, gestures, attempts) should be asked.

After depression is diagnosed, the family and social setting must be evaluated to identify stresses that may have precipitated depression.

Treatment of Depressive Disorders

  • Concurrent measures directed at the family and school

  • For adolescents, usually antidepressants plus psychotherapy

  • For preadolescents, psychotherapy followed, if needed, by antidepressants

Appropriate measures directed at the family and school must accompany direct treatment of the child to enhance continued functioning and provide appropriate educational accommodations. Brief hospitalization may be necessary in acute crises, especially when suicidal behavior is identified.

For adolescents (as for adults), a combination of psychotherapy and antidepressants usually greatly outperforms either modality used alone (1 Treatment references: General Depressive disorders are characterized by sadness or irritability that is severe or persistent enough to interfere with functioning or cause considerable distress. Diagnosis is by history and... read more ). For preadolescents, the situation is much less clear. Most clinicians opt for psychotherapy in younger children; however, drugs can be used in younger children (fluoxetine can be used in children 8 years), especially when depression is severe or has not previously responded to psychotherapy.

Usually, a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI; see table Drugs for Long-Term Treatment of Depression, Anxiety, and Related Disorders Drugs for Long-Term Treatment of Depression, Anxiety, and Related Disorders Depressive disorders are characterized by sadness or irritability that is severe or persistent enough to interfere with functioning or cause considerable distress. Diagnosis is by history and... read more ) is the first choice when an antidepressant is indicated (2 Treatment references: General Depressive disorders are characterized by sadness or irritability that is severe or persistent enough to interfere with functioning or cause considerable distress. Diagnosis is by history and... read more ). Children should be closely monitored for the emergence of behavioral side effects (eg, disinhibition, behavioral activation), which are common but are usually mild to moderate. Usually, decreasing the drug dose or changing to a different drug eliminates or reduces these effects. Rarely, such effects are severe (eg, aggressiveness, increased suicidality). Behavioral adverse effects are idiosyncratic and may occur with any antidepressant and at any time during treatment. As a result, children and adolescents taking such drugs must be closely monitored.

Adult-based research has suggested that antidepressants that act on both the serotonergic and adrenergic/dopaminergic systems may be modestly more effective; however, such drugs (eg, duloxetine, venlafaxine, mirtazapine; certain tricyclics, particularly clomipramine) also tend to have more adverse effects. Such drugs may be especially useful in treatment-resistant cases. Nonserotonergic antidepressants such as bupropion and desipramine may also be used with a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) to enhance efficacy. In very severe depression, psychotic and/or manic symptoms may require treatment with an antipsychotic drug Antipsychotic Drugs Antipsychotic drugs are divided into conventional antipsychotics and 2nd-generation antipsychotics (SGAs) based on their specific neurotransmitter receptor affinity and activity. SGAs may offer... read more (3, 4 Treatment references: General Depressive disorders are characterized by sadness or irritability that is severe or persistent enough to interfere with functioning or cause considerable distress. Diagnosis is by history and... read more ).

As in adults, relapse and recurrence are common. Children and adolescents should remain in treatment for at least 1 year after symptoms have remitted. Most experts recommend that children who have experienced 2 episodes of major depression be treated indefinitely.

Table
icon

Treatment references: General

  • 1. Kennard BD, Silva SG, Tonev S, et al: Remission and recovery in the Treatment for Adolescents with Depression Study (TADS): Acute and long-term outcomes. J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry 48(2):186-195, 1009. doi: 10.1097/CHI.0b013e31819176f9

  • 2. Dwyer JB, Bloch MH: Antidepressants for pediatric patients. Curr Psychiatr 8(9):26-42F, 2019.

  • 3. Kendall T, Morriss R, Mayo-Wilson E, et al: Assessment and management of bipolar disorder: Summary of updated NICE guidance. BMJ 349:g5673, 2014. doi: 10.1136/bmj.g5673

  • 4. Yatham LN, Kennedy SH, Parikh SV, et al: Canadian Network for Mood and Anxiety Treatments (CANMAT) and International Society for Bipolar Disorders (ISBD) collaborative update of CANMAT guidelines for the management of patients with bipolar disorder: Update 2013. Bipolar Disord 15(1):1-44, 2013. doi: 10.1111/bdi.12025

  • 5. Allen CG, Kluger BM, Buard I: Safety of transcranial magnetic stimulation in children: A systematic review of the literature. Pediatr Neurol 68:3-17, 2017. doi.org/10.1016/j.pediatrneurol.2016.12.009

  • 6. Donaldson AE, Gordon MS, Melvin GA, et al: Addressing the needs of adolescents with treatment resistant depressive disorders: A systematic review of rTMS. Brain Stimul 7(1):7-12. 2014. doi: 10.1016/j.brs.2013.09.012

  • 7. Krishnan C, Santos L, Peterson MD, et al: Safety of noninvasive brain stimulation in children and adolescents. Brain Stimul 8:76-87, 2015. doi: 10.1016/j.brs.2014.10.012

  • 8. Croarkin PE, MacMaster FP: Transcranial magnetic stimulation for adolescent depression. Child Adolesc Psychiatry Clin N Am 28(1):33-43, 2019. 10.1016/j.chc.2018.07.003

Suicide risk and antidepressants

Suicide risk and treatment with antidepressants have been topics of debate and research (1 Treatment references: Suicide risk and antidepressants Depressive disorders are characterized by sadness or irritability that is severe or persistent enough to interfere with functioning or cause considerable distress. Diagnosis is by history and... read more ). In 2004, the US FDA did a meta-analysis of 23 previously conducted trials of 9 different antidepressants (2 Treatment references: Suicide risk and antidepressants Depressive disorders are characterized by sadness or irritability that is severe or persistent enough to interfere with functioning or cause considerable distress. Diagnosis is by history and... read more ). Although no patients completed suicide in these trials, a small but statistically significant increase in suicidal ideation was noted in children and adolescents taking an antidepressant (about 4% vs about 2%), leading to a black box warning on all classes of antidepressants (eg, tricyclic antidepressants, SSRIs, serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors such as venlafaxine, and tetracyclic antidepressants such as mirtazapine).

In 2006, a meta-analysis (from the United Kingdom) of children and adolescents being treated for depression (3 Treatment references: Suicide risk and antidepressants Depressive disorders are characterized by sadness or irritability that is severe or persistent enough to interfere with functioning or cause considerable distress. Diagnosis is by history and... read more ) found that compared with patients taking a placebo, those taking an antidepressant had a small increase in self-harm or suicide-related events (4.8% vs 3.0% of those treated with placebo). However, whether the difference was statistically significant or not varied depending on the type of analysis (fixed-effects analysis or random-effects analysis). There was a nonsignificant trend toward an increase in suicidal ideation (1.2% vs 0.8%), self-harm (3.3% vs 2.6%), and suicide attempts (1.9% vs 1.2%). There appear to have been some differences in risk between different drugs; however, no direct head-to-head studies have been done, and it is difficult to control for severity of depression and other confounding risk factors.

In general, although antidepressants have limited efficacy in children and adolescents, the benefits appear to outweigh risks. The best approach seems to be combining drug treatment with psychotherapy and minimizing risk by closely monitoring treatment.

Whether or not drugs are used, suicide is always a concern in a child or adolescent with depression. The following should be done to reduce risk:

  • Parents and mental health care practitioners should discuss the issues in depth.

  • The child or adolescent should be supervised at an appropriate level.

  • Psychotherapy with regularly scheduled appointments should be included in the treatment plan.

Pearls & Pitfalls

  • Suicide risk is always a concern in children or adolescents with depression whether they are taking antidepressants or not.

Treatment references: Suicide risk and antidepressants

  • 1. Hetrick SE, McKenzie JE, Merry SN: Newer generation antidepressants for depressive disorders in children and adolescents. Cochrane Database Syst Rev Nov 11 2012.

  • 2. US FDA: Review and evaluation of clinical data: Relationship between psychotropic drugs and pediatric suicidality. 2004. Accessed 11/4/16.

  • 3. Dubicka B, Hadley S, Roberts C: Suicidal behaviour in youths with depression treated with new-generation antidepressants: Meta-analysis. Br J Psychiatry Nov 189:393–398, 2006.

  • 4. Adegbite-Adeniyi C, et al: An update on antidepressant use and suicidality in pediatric depression. Expert Opin Pharmacother 13 (15):2119–2130, 2012.

  • 5. Gibbons RD, Brown CH, Hur K, et al: Early evidence on the effects of regulators' suicidality warnings on SSRI prescriptions and suicide in children and adolescents. Am J Psychiatry 164 (9);1356–1363, 2007.

  • 6. Garland JE, Kutcher S, Virani A, et al: Update on the use of SSRIs and SNRIs with children and adolescents in clinical practice. J Can Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry 25(1):4-10.

  • 7. Dwyer JB, Bloch MH: Antidepressants for pediatric patients. Curr Psychiatr 8(9):26-42F, 2019.

  • 8. Gibbons R, Hur K, Lavigne J, et al: Medications and suicide: High dimensional empirical Bayes screening (iDEAS). Harvard Data Sci Rev 2019. doi: 10.1162/99608f92.6fdaa9de

Key Points

  • In children, depressive disorders may manifest as sadness or irritability.

  • Major depressive disorder involves feeling sad or irritable or losing interest or pleasure in almost all activities for most of the day nearly every day during a 2-week period plus other specific symptoms.

  • Diagnose a depressive disorder based on specific clinical criteria, and do appropriate laboratory tests to exclude other disorders (eg, infectious mononucleosis, thyroid disorders, drug abuse).

  • Involve the family and school while treating the child to enhance the child's continued functioning and provide appropriate educational accommodations.

  • For adolescents (as for adults), a combination of psychotherapy and antidepressants usually greatly outperforms either modality used alone; in younger children, most clinicians opt for psychotherapy although if needed, drugs can be used (depending on the child's age).

  • In 2004, the FDA did a meta-analysis that led to a black box warning of an increased risk of suicidal ideation and behavior in children, adolescents, and young adults with all classes of antidepressants; subsequent analyses have cast doubt on this conclusion.

More Information

The following is an English-language resource that may be useful. Please note that THE MANUAL is not responsible for the content of this resource.

Drugs Mentioned In This Article

Drug Name Select Trade
ANAFRANIL
LEXAPRO
NORPRAMIN
LUVOX
EFFEXOR XR
REMERON
PAXIL
ZOLOFT
CELEXA
PROZAC, SARAFEM
CYMBALTA
WELLBUTRIN, ZYBAN
XYLOCAINE
CATAPRES
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