Get the Facts on Teenage Depression

Depressive disorders, which include major depressive disorder (unipolar depression), dysthymic disorder (chronic, mild depression), and bipolar disorder (manic-depression), can have far reaching effects on the functioning and adjustment of young people. Among both children and adolescents, depressive disorders confer an increased risk for illness and interpersonal and psychosocial difficulties that persist long after the depressive episode is resolved; in adolescents there is also an increased risk for substance abuse and suicidal behavior. Unfortunately, these disorders often go unrecognized by families and physicians alike. Signs of depressive disorders in young people often are viewed as normal mood swings typical of a particular developmental stage. In addition, health care professionals may be reluctant to prematurely “label” a young person with a mental illness diagnosis. Yet early diagnosis and treatment of depressive disorders are critical to healthy emotional, social, and behavioral development.

Although the scientific literature on treatment of children and adolescents with depression is far less extensive than that concerning adults, a number of studies – mostly conducted in the last four to five years – have confirmed the short-term efficacy and safety of treatments for depression in youth. Larger treatment trials are needed to determine which treatments work best for which youngsters, and studies are also needed, however, on how to best incorporate these treatments into primary care practice.

Given the challenging nature of the problem, it is usually advisable to involve a child psychiatrist or psychologist in the evaluation, diagnosis, and treatment of a child or adolescent in whom depression is suspected.

This fact sheet, prepared by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), the lead Federal agency for research on mental disorders, summarizes some of the latest scientific findings on child and adolescent depression and lists resources where physicians can obtain more information.

Scope of the Problem

A number of epidemiological studies have reported that up to 2.5 percent of children and up to 8.3 percent of adolescents in the U.S. suffer from depression. An NIMH-sponsored study of 9- to 17-year-olds estimates that the prevalence of any depression is more than 6 percent in a 6-month period, with 4.9 percent having major depression. In addition, research indicates that depression onset is occurring earlier in life today than in past decades. A recently published longitudinal prospective study found that early-onset depression often persists, recurs, and continues into adulthood, and indicates that depression in youth may also predict more severe illness in adult life. Depression in young people often co-occurs with other mental disorders, most commonly anxiety, disruptive behavior, or substance abuse disorders, and with physical illnesses, such as diabetes.

Suicide. Depression in children and adolescents is associated with an increased risk of suicidal behaviors. This risk may rise, particularly among adolescent boys, if the depression is accompanied by conduct disorder and alcohol or other substance abuse. In 1997, suicide was the third leading cause of death in 10- to 24-year-olds. NIMH-supported researchers found that among adolescents who develop major depressive disorder, as many as 7 percent may commit suicide in the young adult years. Consequently, it is important for doctors and parents to take all threats of suicide seriously.

NIMH researchers are developing and testing various interventions to prevent suicide in children and adolescents. Early diagnosis and treatment, accurate evaluation of suicidal thinking, and limiting young people’s access to lethal agents – including firearms and medications – may hold the greatest suicide prevention value.

Clinical Characteristics

The diagnostic criteria and key defining features of major depressive disorder in children and adolescents are the same as they are for adults. However, recognition and diagnosis of the disorder may be more difficult in youth for several reasons. The way symptoms are expressed varies with the developmental stage of the youngster. In addition, children and young adolescents with depression may have difficulty in properly identifying and describing their internal emotional or mood states. For example, instead of communicating how bad they feel, they may act out and be irritable toward others, which may be interpreted simply as misbehavior or disobedience. Research has found that parents are even less likely to identify major depression in their adolescents than are the adolescents themselves.


There are several tools that are useful for screening children and adolescents for possible depression. They include the Children’s Depression Inventory (CDI) for ages 7 to 17; and, for adolescents, the Beck Depression Inventory (BDI) and the Center for Epidemiologic Studies Depression (CES-D) Scale. When a youngster screens positive on any of these instruments, a comprehensive diagnostic evaluation by a mental health professional is warranted. The evaluation should include interviews with the youth, parents, and when possible, other informants such as teachers and social services personnel.

Risk Factors

In childhood, boys and girls appear to be at equal risk for depressive disorders; but during adolescence, girls are twice as likely as boys to develop depression. Children who develop major depression are more likely to have a family history of the disorder, often a parent who experienced depression at an early age, than patients with adolescent- or adult-onset depression. Adolescents with depression are also likely to have a family history of depression, though the correlation is not as high as it is for children.

Other risk factors include:


Cigarette smoking

A loss of a parent or loved one

Break-up of a romantic relationship

Attentional, conduct or learning disorders

Chronic illnesses, such as diabetes

Abuse or neglect

Other trauma, including natural disasters


Treatment for depressive disorders in children and adolescents often involves short-term psychotherapy, medication, or the combination, and targeted interventions involving the home or school environment. There remains, however, a pressing need for additional research on the effectiveness of psychosocial and pharmacological treatments for depression in youth. While data from adults indicate the need for maintenance treatment after episode recovery in order to prevent recurrences, the value of such treatment in children and adolescents has yet to be determined through research.

Psychotherapy. Recent research shows that certain types of short-term psychotherapy, particularly cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), can help relieve depression in children and adolescents. CBT is based on the premise that people with depression have cognitive distortions in their views of themselves, the world, and the future. CBT, designed to be a time-limited therapy, focuses on changing these distortions. An NIMH-supported study that compared different types of psychotherapy for major depression in adolescents found that CBT led to remission in nearly 65 percent of cases, a higher rate than either supportive therapy or family therapy. CBT also resulted in a more rapid treatment response.

Another specific psychotherapy, interpersonal therapy (IPT), focuses on working through disturbed personal relationships that may contribute to depression. IPT has not been well investigated in youth with depression; however, one controlled study found that IPT led to greater improvement than clinical contact alone.

Continuing psychotherapy for several months after remission of symptoms may help patients and families consolidate the skills learned during the acute phase of depression, cope with the after-effects of the depression, effectively address environmental stressors, and understand how the young person’s thoughts and behaviors could contribute to a relapse.

Medication. Research clearly demonstrates that antidepressant medications, especially when combined with psychotherapy, can be very effective treatments for depressive disorders in adults. Using medication to treat mental illness in children and adolescents, however, has caused controversy. Many doctors have been understandably reluctant to treat young people with psychotropic medications because, until fairly recently, little evidence was available about the safety and efficacy of these drugs in youth.

In the last few years, however, researchers have been able to conduct randomized, placebo-controlled studies with children and adolescents. Some of the newer antidepressant medications, specifically the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), have been shown to be safe and efficacious for the short-term treatment of severe and persistent depression in young people, although large scale studies in clinical populations are still needed. So far, there are two controlled studies showing efficacy of fluoxetine and paroxetine, respectively. It is important to note that available studies do not support the efficacy of tricyclic antidepressants (TCAs) for depression in youth.

Medication as a first-line course of treatment should be considered for children and adolescents with severe symptoms that would prevent effective psychotherapy, those who are unable to undergo psychotherapy, those with psychosis, and those with chronic or recurrent episodes. Following remission of symptoms, continuation treatment with medication and/or psychotherapy for at least several months may be recommended by the psychiatrist, given the high risk of relapse and recurrence of depression. Discontinuation of medications, as appropriate, should be done gradually over 6 weeks or longer.

NIMH has initiated a large-scale, controlled clinical trial at 10 sites across the U.S. to compare the long-term effectiveness of fluoxetine, CBT, and the combination of these interventions for treatment of depression in adolescents. More information about this trial, called the Treatment of Adolescents with Depression Study (TADS), and others can be found through the Clinical Trials page of the NIMH web site at

Talking With Parents

It is very important for parents to understand their child’s depression and the treatments that may be prescribed. Physicians can help by talking with parents about their questions or concerns, reinforcing that depression in youth is not uncommon, and reassuring them that appropriate treatment with psychotherapy, medication, or the combination can lead to improved functioning at school, with peers, and at home with family. In addition, referring the youth and family to a mental health professional and to the information resources listed at the back of this publication can help to enhance recovery.


Provided by the National Institute of Mental Health

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