Ask the Pediatrician: Does Depression in Children Start Early?


Dr. Max Coppes, MBA, physician-in-chief of Renown Children’s Hospital, explains the signs and symptoms of depression in children and how to get help.

By Dr. Max Coppes

A new study of more 100,000 children demonstrated that by the time they reach 17 years of age, more than a third of girls and over one in eight boys have experienced depression with an onset as early as age 11. These numbers are much higher than previously estimated and provide a somewhat alarming insight in the state of children’s mental health in the United States.

Understanding what is going on and how best to approach this condition is essential, as depression is linked with school performance, relationship development and suicide. In fact, suicide has in fact become the leading cause of death for youth ages 10-24 over the past few decades.

Similar to discussions of cancer many years ago, we seem to be reluctant to openly talk about depression, especially if it affects our children. Whether we are ashamed that our own kids might be affected or whether we feel guilty about possibly having contributed to their depression, it doesn’t really matter. Hoping it will soon pass or assessing “it is not that serious” is not a real solution.


Diagnosis and treatment

As with many conditions that can lead to very serious problems over time, the sooner we try to address depression professionally, the better the chances of managing or curing depression altogether. In fact, between 80-90 percent of people with depression eventually respond to treatment.

What is depression? Medically, it falls under the category of mood disorders. It is an illness that negatively affects how one feels, thinks, acts and experiences life. Importantly, depression is different from simply feeling or being sad. The end of a relationship, losing friends after relocation, the death of a grandparent may well lead to profound sadness, but this is a normal part of grieving. Unlike with depression, a grieving, sad child will usually fluctuate between normal and sad and his/her self-esteem will be maintained. Therefore, just because a child may seem sad does not necessarily mean that he/she is depressed. However, if sadness becomes persistent or is accompanied by disruptive behavior or thoughts of suicide, this could be considered a depressive episode.

Other symptoms that should trigger concern may include:

  • Irritability
  • Anger
  • Vocal outcries
  • Changes in appetite (either increase or decrease)
  • Social withdrawal
  • Continued feelings of sadness/ helplessness
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Feelings of worthlessness or guilt
  • Sleeplessness

Unfortunately, many of these symptoms accompany the transition from childhood to adulthood and are often passed off as normal emotional changes “typical for puberty.” In general, if children continue to function reasonably well, it likely is related to puberty. If, however, the symptoms persist, hamper normal teenage functioning, lead to poor academic performance, and/or are accompanied by a sudden change in appearance, contact your pediatrician or family physician for a more formal assessment. In addition, other conditions, like thyroid problems or vitamin deficiencies amongst others, need to be ruled out.

Once the diagnosis of depression has been made, treatments are available and can mitigate or avoid potentially serious or life-threatening consequences.

If you need additional assistance, Renown Behavioral Health offers therapy and additional support groups. Learn more online or call 775-982-5318.

Editor’s note: This article also appeared in the Fall 2017 issue of The Galena Times.