Depression in Children (cont.)

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What should parents do if they suspect that their child is depressed?

Family members and friends are advised to seek mental-health evaluation and treatment for the depressed child. Family members may consult with the child's primary-care doctor or seek mental-health services by contacting one of the resources identified below. Once the depressed child is in treatment, family members can help encourage good mental health by gently encouraging him or her to adopt a healthy lifestyle. Examples of that include encouraging the child to maintain a healthy diet, get adequate sleep, regular exercise, remain socially engaged and to participate in appropriate stress-management activities. Family can be helpful to the depressed child by discouraging their loved one from engaging in risky behaviors.

What is the treatment for depression in children?

If symptoms indicate that your child is suffering from clinical depression, the health-care professional likely will recommend treatment. Treatment may include addressing any medical conditions that cause or worsen depression. For example, an individual who is found to have low levels of thyroid hormone might receive hormone replacement with levothyroxine (Synthroid). Other components of treatment may be supportive therapy, such as changes in lifestyle and behavior, psychotherapy, complementary therapies, and may include medication for moderate to severe depression. If symptoms are severe enough to warrant treatment with medication, symptoms tend to improve faster and for longer when medication treatment is combined with psychotherapy.

Most practitioners will continue treatment of major depression for six months to a year in order to prevent a reoccurrence of symptoms. Treatment for children with depression can have a significantly positive effect on the child's functioning with peers, family, and at school. Without treatment, symptoms tend to last much longer and may not improve. In fact, they may get worse. With treatment, the chances of recovery are much more likely.


Psychotherapy ("talk therapy") is a form of mental-health counseling that involves working with a trained therapist to figure out ways to solve problems and cope with depression. It can be a powerful intervention, even producing positive biochemical changes in the brain. Two major approaches are commonly used to treat childhood depression: interpersonal psychotherapy and cognitive behavioral therapy. In general, these therapies take weeks to months to complete. Each has a goal of alleviating the symptoms. More intensive psychotherapy may be needed for longer when treating very severe depression or for depression with other psychiatric symptoms.

Interpersonal therapy (IPT): This helps to alleviate depressive symptoms by helping a child who suffers from depression develop more effective skills for coping with their emotions and relationships. IPT employs two strategies to achieve these goals:

  • The first is educating the child and family about the nature of depression. The therapist will emphasize that depression is a common illness and that most people can expect to get better with treatment.
  • The second is defining problems (such as abnormal grief or interpersonal conflicts). After the problems are defined, the therapist is able to help set realistic goals for solving these problems and work with the depressed child and his or her family using various treatment techniques to reach these goals.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT): This has been found to be effective as part of treatment for childhood depression. This approach helps to alleviate depression and reduce the likelihood it will come back by helping the child change his or her way of thinking about certain issues. In CBT, the therapist uses three techniques to accomplish these goals.

  • Didactic component: This phase helps to set up positive expectations for therapy and promote the child's cooperation with the treatment process.
  • Cognitive component: This helps to identify the thoughts and assumptions that influence the child's behaviors, particularly those that may predispose the sufferer to being depressed.
  • Behavioral component: This employs behavior-modification techniques to teach the child more effective strategies for dealing with problems.


The major type of antidepressant medications prescribed for children is the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). SSRI medications affect levels of serotonin in the brain. For many prescribing doctors, these medications are the first choice because of the high level of effectiveness and general safety of this group of medicines. Examples of these medications are listed here. The generic name is first, with the brand name in parentheses.

Only Prozac and Lexapro are approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for the treatment of childhood depression and only in ages 8 years and above. Any other medications used to treat this illness in children, or the use of an antidepressant in younger children, is therefore considered to be being used "off label."

Although FDA approved for use in teens with schizophrenia rather than for the treatment of depression, atypical neuroleptic medications like aripiprazole (Abilify) and risperidone (Risperdal) are sometimes prescribed in addition to an antidepressant in children who either suffer from severe depression, fail to improve after receiving trials of different antidepressants in addition to, or instead of, an antidepressant in children who suffer from bipolar disorder.

Non-neuroleptic mood-stabilizer medications are also sometimes used with an antidepressant to treat children with severe unipolar depression who do not improve after receiving trials of different antidepressants. These medications might also be considered in addition to or instead of an antidepressant in children who suffer from bipolar disorder. Examples of nonneuroleptic mood stabilizers that are used for this purpose include divalproex acid (Depakote), carbamazepine (Tegretol), and lamotrigine (Lamictal). Of the non-neuroleptic mood stabilizers, lamotrigine (Lamictal) seems to be unique in its ability to also treat unipolar depression effectively by itself as well as in addition to an antidepressant. However, it is only used in people 16 years of age or older due to potentially serious side effects.

Atypical antidepressant medications work differently than the commonly used SSRIs. The following medications might be prescribed when SSRIs have not worked: buproprion (Wellbutrin), venlafaxine (Effexor), duloxetine (Cymbalta), or desvenlafaxine (Pristiq).

About 60% of children who take antidepressant medication get better and are thought to be highly suggestible to improve (placebo effect). It may take anywhere from one to six weeks of taking medication at its effective dose to start feeling better. The prescribing physician will likely assess the depressed child that is receiving the medication soon after it is started to see if the medication is being well tolerated and if symptoms have begun to improve. If not, the doctor may adjust the dose of the medication or prescribe a different one.

After symptoms begin to improve, the prescribing doctor will likely encourage the family of the depressed child to continue administering the medication for six months to a year since stopping the medication too soon may cause symptoms to return or worsen. Some people need to take the medication for longer periods of time to keep the depression from returning. Stopping abruptly may cause the depression to return or for withdrawal effects to occur, depending on the medication that is being taken.

The side effects of antidepressant medications vary considerably from drug to drug and from person to person.

  • Common side effects include dry mouth, upset stomach, nausea, tremor, insomnia, blurred vision, constipation, and dizziness.
  • In rare cases, some people of all ages have been thought to have become acutely more depressed once on the medication, even attempting or completing suicide or homicide. Children and teenagers are thought to be particularly vulnerable to this rare possibility. However, when considering this risk, it is important to also consider the risk of the potential serious outcomes that can result from untreated depression.

Alternative treatments

Several nonprescription herbal supplements like St. John's wort and dietary supplements like vitamin C are used to treat depression. Little is known about the safety, effectiveness, or appropriate dosage of these remedies, although they are taken by thousands of people around the world.

  • A few of the best-known alternative remedies continue to be studied scientifically to see how well they work, but to date, there is little evidence that herbal remedies effectively treat moderate to severe clinical depression.
  • Medical professionals usually are hesitant to recommend herbs or dietary supplements, particularly in children, because they are not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), as prescription drugs are, to ensure their purity and quality.
Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 8/21/2014

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