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Pediatric Depression: What you need to know

Pediatric depression is a common issue, yet it is often left undiagnosed and untreated. Usually thought of as an adult disease, depression can affect young children as well.

Why is important to talk about pediatric depression?

While feeling depressed or having mood fluctuations is normal for both children and adolescents, it is important to pay attention to the duration of the depressed symptoms. Depressive disorders are prevalent and often recurring, with 2 to 4 percent of preschool and school aged children meeting the criteria for major depression. In pre-adolescence the ratio of girls and boys with depression is 1 to 1, however after puberty two times as many girls are diagnosed.

Unfortunately if left untreated, depression can increase the risk for suicide, manifest as physical illness, impact school performance or result in a higher risk of substance abuse.

What causes depression?

There isn’t one thing that causes depression; usually it is a combination of biology, personality and environment. Life experience, combined with genetics, age, brain chemistry, hormone changes and even other illnesses can all play a role in the development of depression.

Studies show that children with a depressed parent are three times more likely to suffer from a depressive disorder. Typically those with early onset have a higher rate of depression in their family. This high genetic risk may make them more sensitive to negative environmental experiences.

However, even those without a family history can be at risk for depression. Some of those factors may be:

  • Family dynamics (conflict, illness, loss of loved one)
  • Abuse or neglect
  • School issues (bullying, relationships, achievement pressure)
  • Comorbid psychiatric disorders (ADHD, anxiety)

What are signs and symptoms of depression?

The signs and symptoms of depression differ according to age and development, as a young child has more difficulty expression thoughts and feelings so their signs are quite different than those in an older child or adult. However, a proper diagnosis, although it can be challenging will help you understand treatment choices and manage the depression more effectively.

The most common depression symptoms in children are:

  • Irritability, temper tantrums or disruptive behavior
  • Frequent physical illness, such as stomachache or headache
  • Boredom
  • Indecision
  • Anxiety, especially separation anxiety and phobias
  • Change in eating or sleeping patterns

If these signs persist for at least two weeks and you can rule out changes in medication, substance abuse, bereavement or another illness it may be beneficial to ask your pediatrician to refer you to a qualified mental health professional.

Dr. Eken is a board-certified child and adolescent psychiatrist, adult psychiatrist and pediatrician and medical director at Rogers Child Center. Learn more at rogershospital.org.

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