The suicide of Robin Williams is a tragic reminder that depression and other mood disorders can be fatal illnesses. Depression, particularly in combination with alcohol or drug abuse, is a prime risk factor for completed suicide. The link between depression and suicide is not only true in adults, but also for children and teenagers.
Suicide is the second leading cause of death in youth aged 10-19 years, and by age 18, about 15% of teenagers have suffered from an episode of major depression. Since depression is common in youth, causes significant suffering, and can increase the risk of suicide, it is very important that we recognize the signs and symptoms of depression in children and teenagers. The good news for parents and families is that there are medications and psychotherapies (“talk” therapy) that can be effective treatments for pediatric depression.
What is depression?
Feeling sad, down, or discouraged are natural emotions that happen when difficulties or troubles occur in our lives. Depression is different from a regular down mood, because it lasts longer and feels stronger or different from typical sadness. Sometimes it is a feeling of emptiness, lack of feeling or being irritable, cranky and easily angered.
How does depression affect someone?
Depression affects more than just mood. It drains the energy, motivation, and concentration a person needs for normal living. It interferes with the ability to notice or enjoy the good things in life. Depression can make a person see things much more negatively than they really are and can lead to discouragement, despair, hopelessness, or suicidal thoughts. Sleep and appetite can also change during a period of depression.
How is it different in children and teens?
Depression can be hard to recognize, particularly in children. People with depression may not always realize that they are depressed. And because a child with depression is often irritable or uncooperative, parents may misunderstand it as a bad attitude.
Children and teenagers with depression sometimes can temporarily feel better when something good happens, but the positive feelings only last a short time until they fall back into the depression. Sometimes people with depression, including children, try hard to hide how they are feeling and “look” fine even though they are feeling bad.
How can we deal with depression?
If you are experiencing depression, or if you are the parent of a child or teenager with depression, know that depression can get better with the right treatment. A doctor can check for any health conditions that could be causing symptoms of depression. It can also help to meet with a mental health professional, such as a psychologist, psychiatrist, or other therapist can evaluate and diagnose depression and create a plan to treat it.
Treatment for depression might include talk therapy, medication, or a combination of both. Usually it takes a few weeks for the treatment to start working, so it is important to be patient and stick with it. Many people find that it helps to open up to parents or other adults who they trust. Simply saying something like “I’ve been feeling really down lately and I think I’m depressed” can be a good way to start.
If you are a child or teenager and you think you might be depressed, ask your parent to schedule an appointment with your primary care doctor or a therapist. If a parent or family member can’t help, turn to your school counselor, school nurse, or other trusted adult. If you or someone you know are having serious thoughts about suicide, let your parent, adult family member or other trusted adult know right away, or call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK).
Depression will get better with the proper care and attention over time, so even though the depressed person might feel very bad at times, it is important to remember that things can get better.
David Axelson, MD is recognized nationally and internationally for his work in the field of child and adolescent psychiatry, pediatric bipolar disorder, diagnostic biomarkers for pediatric mood disorders, and pediatric psychopharmacology.
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