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Spotlight on Clinical Depression in Children

written by: Alicia Miller • edited by: Paul Arnold • updated: 3/11/2011

Clinical depression is an alarmingly common problem among children and adolescents. In this article, you'll learn about the common symptoms of clinical depression in children.

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    About Clinical Depression in Children

    Like adults, children can feel sad, anxious, unhappy or "blue" in response to specific events or circumstances that provoke these feelings. Everyone feels down in the dumps from time to time, even without a justifiable reason. However, depression is not simply a matter of feeling sad or blue. Clinical depression is a serious mental illness that can become worse if not properly treated. While it's normal for children to have occasional feelings of sadness, it's not normal for them to experience depression. Alarmingly, the National Institute of Mental Health states that depression is occurring earlier and earlier, with early-onset depression occurring more frequently in children and often recurring or persisting into adulthood. Depression is more common in children with family members who are depressed, and clinical depression in children can be an early indicator of a more serious mental illness later in life.

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    Symptoms of Clinical Depression in Children

    Children experience many of the same symptoms of depression as adults. Feelings of sadness, hopelessness, a lack of self-esteem, aggressive behavior, irritability, low levels of energy, feeling guilty or responsible for external events, problems concentrating in school or decreased scholastic performance, being hypersensitive to criticism or rejection, changes in social habits, lack of appetite or changes in sleep patterns are all some of the more common symptoms of clinical depression in children. Depressed children may complain more frequently of stomachaches, headaches or have other unexplained illnesses or bodily aches and pains. Additionally, children who are severely depressed may exhibit self-injurious behaviors, such as cutting or hair pulling, and can also experience suicidal ideation or even make suicidical gestures or attempts to harm themselves or someone else. In this case, it is important to contact your doctor, local emergency room or the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-TALK for free, confidential advice and support. If you suspect that your child may harm themselves or others, never leave them alone, not even for a few minutes.

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    Causes of Clinical Depression in Children

    The reasons why children might experience symptoms of clinical depression are varied and differ from child to child. Not every child will experience depression in the same way. Genetics plays an important role, because depression occurs more frequently in children who have a depressed relative. Additionally, common reasons children become depressed include situational causes such as being the victim of physical or emotional abuse or neglect, witnessing domestic violence or other violent acts, family, social or academic stress, the loss of a loved one, illness of a family member, moving to a new location or parental pressure to succeed academically or socially. Children who have a learning or conduct disorder or medical illness may also be more likely to become depressed. Additionally, depression is also thought to have a biochemical basis. A decreased production of certain mood-regulating neurotransmitters, like serotonin, may be a possible cause of clinical depression in children.