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Major Depression in Adolescents

What is major depression?

Major depression, also known as clinical depression or unipolar depression, is classified as a type of affective disorder (also called mood disorder). This goes beyond the day's ordinary ups and downs. It has become a serious medical condition and important health concern in this country.

Depression is a mood disorder that involves an adolescent's body, mood, and thoughts. It can affect and disrupt eating, sleeping, or thinking patterns. It is not the same as being unhappy or in a "blue" mood, nor is it a sign of personal weakness or a condition that can be willed or wished away. Adolescents with a depressive illness cannot merely "pull themselves together" and get better. Treatment is often necessary and many times crucial to recovery.

There are three primary types of depression, including:

  • Major depression (clinical depression)

  • Bipolar disorder (manic depression)

  • Persistent depressive disorder (dysthymia)

Who is affected by major depression?

The National Institute of Mental Health, part of the National Institutes of Health, reports the following:

  • Research indicates that depression onset is happening earlier in life today than in past decades.

  • Early-onset depression often lasts, happens again, and continues into adulthood. Depression in youth may also predict more severe illness in adulthood.

  • There is an increased incidence of depression in adolescents whose parents experience depression.

What are the risk factors for major depression?

The following are the most common risk factors for major depression:

  • Family history of depression (especially if a parent experienced depression as a child or adolescent)

  • Excessive stress

  • Abuse or neglect

  • Trauma (physical and/or emotional)

  • Other psychiatric disorders

  • Loss of a parent, caregiver, or other loved one

  • Cigarette smoking

  • Loss of a relationship (for example, moving away, loss of boyfriend or girlfriend)

  • Other chronic illnesses (such as diabetes)

  • Other developmental, learning, or conduct disorders

What are the symptoms of major depression?

The following are the most common symptoms of major depression. However, each adolescent may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms may include:

  • Lasting feelings of sadness

  • Feeling hopeless or helpless

  • Having low self-esteem

  • Feeling inadequate

  • Excessive guilt

  • Feelings of wanting to die

  • Loss of interest in usual activities or activities once enjoyed

  • Difficulty with relationships

  • Sleep disturbances (such as insomnia or hypersomnia)

  • Changes in appetite or weight

  • Decreased energy

  • Difficulty concentrating

  • A decrease in the ability to make decisions

  • Suicidal thoughts or attempts

  • Frequent physical complaints (for example, headache, stomachache, or fatigue)

  • Running away or threats of running away from home

  • Hypersensitivity to failure or rejection

  • Irritability, hostility, aggression

For a diagnosis of major depression to be made, an adolescent often needs to exhibit a several of the above symptoms during the same two-week period. The symptoms of major depression may resemble other problems or psychiatric conditions. Always talk with your adolescent's healthcare provider for a diagnosis.

How is major depression diagnosed?

Depression has shown to often coexist with other psychiatric disorders, such as substance abuse or anxiety disorders. Because of this, seeking early diagnosis and treatment is crucial to the recovery of your adolescent.

A child psychiatrist or other mental health professional usually diagnoses major depression following a comprehensive psychiatric evaluation. An evaluation of the adolescent's family, when possible, in addition to information provided by teachers and care providers may also be helpful in making a diagnosis.

Treatment for major depression

Specific treatment for major depression will be discussed with you by your adolescent's healthcare provider based on:

  • Your adolescent's age, overall health, and medical history

  • Extent of your adolescent's symptoms

  • Your adolescent's tolerance for specific medicines or therapies

  • Expectations for the course of the condition

  • Your opinion or preference

Mood disorders, including major depression, can often be effectively treated. Treatment should always be based on a comprehensive evaluation of the adolescent and family. Treatment may include one, or more, of the following:

  • Antidepressant medicines (especially when combined with psychotherapy has shown to be very effective in the treatment of depression in children and teens)

  • Psychotherapy (most often cognitive-behavioral and/or interpersonal therapy) for the adolescent (focused on changing the adolescent's distorted views of themselves and the environment around them; working through difficult relationships; identifying stressors in the adolescent's environment and learning how to avoid them)

  • Family therapy

  • Consultation with the adolescent's school

Parents play a vital supportive role in any treatment process.

For several reasons, many parents of children or adolescents with depression never seek the appropriate treatment for their adolescent. This is true even though many people with major depression who seek treatment improve--usually within weeks. Continued treatment may help to prevent the depressive symptoms from returning.

Without appropriate treatment, symptoms of depression can last for weeks, months, or years. In addition to causing interpersonal and psychosocial problems, depression in children and adolescents is also associated with an increased risk for suicide. This risk rises, particularly among adolescent boys, when the depression is accompanied by other mental health disorders. These include conduct disorder and substance abuse. It is crucial for parents and care providers of children and adolescents to take all depressive and suicidal symptoms very seriously. Seek treatment immediately. Suicide is a medical emergency. Talk with your adolescent's healthcare provider for more information.

Medical Reviewers:

  • Ballas, Paul, DO
  • Nelson, Gail A., MS, APRN, BC