What is Depression?
Depression is one of the most common yet underidentified mental health problems of childhood and adolescence. Left unidentified and untreated, depression can have pervasive and long-term effects on social, personal, and academic performance. When school personnel know how to identify and intervene with children who have depression, they can provide them with opportunities for effective support.
Depression is not easily recognized or may be mistaken as another problem, such as lack of motivation. Although severe depression might be displayed in symptoms such as suicide attempts, severe withdrawal, or emotional swings, the vast majority of cases are much milder and do not attract attention from adults. Moreover, children and adolescents are not as likely as adults to refer themselves for mental health problems.
It's natural to feel sad, down, or discouraged at times. We all feel these human emotions, they're reactions to the hassles and hurdles of life. We may feel sad over an argument with a friend, a breakup, or a best friend moving out of town. We might be disappointed about doing poorly on a test or discouraged if our team can't break its losing streak. The death of someone close can lead to a specific kind of sadness — grief. Most of the time, people manage to deal with these feelings and get past them with a little time and care.
Depression is more than occasionally feeling blue, sad, or down in the dumps, though. Depression is a strong mood involving sadness, discouragement, despair, or hopelessness that lasts for weeks, months, or even longer.
Content provided by the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP)
Additional resources provided by Nemours
Signs of Depression
Children and adolescents can demonstrate depression in cognitive, behavioral, and physiological behaviors or patterns. Although not all children will show all signs, or the signs may vary in frequency, intensity, and duration at different times, a persistent pattern over a relatively long time is likely to be associated with a variety of personal, social, and academic problems.
- ‘‘All or none’’ thinking
- Memory problems
- Concentration problems
- Attention problems
- Internal locus of control
- Negative view of self, world, and future
- Automatic thinking
- Negative attributional style
- Negative affect
- Feelings of helplessness
- Feelings of hopelessness
- Low self-esteem
- Difficulty making decisions
- Feels loss of control
- Suicidal thoughts
- Depressed mood
- Social withdrawal
- Does not participate in usual activities
- Shows limited effort
- Decline in self-care or personal appearance
- Decreased work or school performance
- Appears detached from others
- Crying for no apparent reason
- Inappropriate responses to events
- Suicide attempts
- Somatic complaints
- Poor appetite or overeating
- Insomnia or hypersomnia
- Low energy or fatigue
Effects of Depression
On Academic and Social Performance
Children and adolescents with depression experience significant academic and social difficulties. Children who have depression are much more likely than their peers to have difficulty concentrating, completing assignments, paying attention, participating in class, achieving at grade level, feeling academically competent, persisting on tasks, and feeling motivated to perform. Socially, depressed children are more likely to be withdrawn, experience social skills deficits, and derive less enjoyment from their surroundings. To others, they may appear to be uninterested in school or to deliberately choose to show these behaviors. Children and adolescents who are depressed generally want to be successful academically and socially, but lack the ability and motivation; they are not choosing these behaviors.
Depression and Suicide
A small proportion of depressed students show serious thoughts of planning or attempting suicide. Although the risk of suicide is higher with depressed students, the vast majority of them do not attempt it. Nevertheless, any signs of suicide should be taken seriously, even if they appear to be meaningless gestures.
If you or someone you know is thinking about suicide, call a Suicide Hotline at:
1-800-SUICIDE (1-800-784-2433) or
If someone is actively suicidal, do not leave them alone. If you are not able to stay with him/her, arrange to have someone else stay with them. For more information on the topic of suicide and suicide prevention, see our page entitled Suicide Prevention.
If you are in need of further information, please contact your school. For middle or high school students, contact your school's counseling office. For elementary students, contact the school's main office.
Childhood Depression: A Parent's Primer
Get a Medical Checkup
A doctor can check for any health conditions that might cause symptoms of depression. For example, hypothyroidism can cause a depressed mood, low energy, and tiredness. Mono can make a person feel tired and depressed.
Talk to a Counselor
Having meetings with a counselor or therapist is called talk therapy. Talk therapy can help people overcome depression. Talk therapy works by helping people to:
- understand their emotions, put feelings into words, and feel understood and supported
- build the confidence to deal with life's struggles
- work out problems they face
- change negative thinking patterns that are part of depression
- increase self-esteem and become more self-accepting
- increase their positive emotions and feel happier
Overcoming depression might include talk therapy, medication, or both. A therapist might also recommend daily exercise, exposure to daylight, or better ways of eating. A therapist might teach relaxation skills to help someone get a good night's sleep.
Many people find that it helps to open up to parents or other adults 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 begin the discussion.
If a parent or family member can't help, turn to your school counselor, school nurse, or a helpline. Let friends and other people who care about you offer their support. They can
- listen and talk, showing that they understand what you're feeling
- remind you that things can get better, and that they are there for you through the downs and ups
- help you see the things that are already good about your life, even when it's hard for you to notice
- keep you company and do enjoyable or relaxing things with you give you honest compliments and help you find things to laugh or smile about
Try these simple tips:
- eat healthy foods
- get the right amount of sleep
- walk, play or do something else to get exercise every day
- take time to relax
- take time to notice the good things in life, no matter how small
Information provided by Teen Health from Nemours, TeensHealth.org
Book and Video Resources
In My Heart: A Book of Feelings (Ages 3-6)
Written by Jo Witek, illustrated by Christine Roussey, and published by Harry N. Abrams.
In this sturdy book with beautiful heart-shaped cutouts, a girl explains that her heart is full of feelings. Each spread focuses on a different emotion, such as happiness, bravery, and fear. The descriptions of the feelings are particularly engaging: “Some days my heart feels as heavy as an elephant. There’s a dark cloud over my head and tears fall like rain. This is when my heart is sad.”
Blueloon (ages 6-9)
Written by Julia Cook, illustrated by Anita DuFalla,
Meet Blueloon — a sad little balloon who is suffering from depression. With help from the wise rock, Blueloon learns what he can do to “bounce back” to being the way he used to be — bright, round, and full with a very straight string! Although clinical depression is often thought of as an adult disease, it can affect children, as well. Unfortunately, children may not have the maturity to understand what is happening to them, or they may feel powerless to change their situation, so they don't speak up about what they are going through. It is up to adults to be on the lookout for signs of trouble, and recognize when a child needs help.
Can I Catch It Like a Cold? Coping With a Parent’s Depression (Ages 7-12)
Written by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, illustrated by Joe Weissmann, and published by Tundra Books.
Alex’s dad doesn’t work anymore and just wants to sleep all the time. When Alex finds out why — that he’s suffering from depression — he confides in his friend Anna. She tells him that her mom has depression too, and she sees a therapist to help her feel better. “I like that it promotes the benefits of therapy for the entire family,” says an expert at the Child Mind Institute.
Middle School/ High School
Depression and Your Child: A Guide for Parents & Caregivers
Written by D. Serani