Depression and mental health in youth Depression and mental health in youth

What is depression?

Depression is an illness that involves feelings of despair and hopelessness. It lasts longer than the normal feelings of sadness that people feel now and then. It can affect a person’s thoughts, feelings, behaviour and overall health.

Depression occurs in children, but it is more common in teens. It is also more common in girls than in boys.

What factors are linked to depression?

Depression can have a number of factors.

  • A difficult or stressful situation, such as losing a relative or moving to a new place, can sometimes trigger depression.
  • Family history also plays a part: a child is more likely to be depressed if they have at least one depressed parent or if there is a history of bipolar disorder or repeated episodes of depression.
  • Children with attention problems, a long-term illness or anxiety disorders are also more likely to become depressed. The same applies to children who have been physically or sexually abused.
  • Lesbian, gay and bisexual teens have a higher risk for depression and other forms of mental illness.

What are the signs and symptoms of depression?

Each person experiences depression in their own way. However, common signs and symptoms include:

  • frequent sadness without a reason
  • irritability or increased anger
  • frequent crying
  • extreme guilt
  • poor concentration
  • low self-esteem
  • extreme sensitivity to criticism or failure
  • lack of interest in favourite activities
  • sleeping more or less than usual
  • constant low energy or tiredness
  • not wanting to mix with friends
  • poor communication
  • changes in appetite
  • severe weight gain or weight loss
  • frequent headaches and stomach aches
  • absences from school or drop in school performance
  • threats or attempts to run away from home
  • drug or alcohol abuse
  • talk or thoughts of suicide.

What can I do to help my child with depression?

Depression can be hard to identify in young children because they cannot yet express their feelings clearly. It can also be hard to identify in teens because they might have developed methods to hide it.

If you do notice changes in your child, one way to help is to spend time talking with them and listening to their concerns. You can also help them follow a healthy diet and a good sleep routine and encourage them to take part in regular physical activity. It is also a good idea to encourage them to take part in other activities that they enjoy.

If you suspect that your child is depressed, see their doctor. If it is not treated, depression can lead to self-harm or suicide. See a doctor right away if your child has already harmed themselves or expressed thoughts of suicide.

How can my child’s doctor help my child with depression?

Your child’s doctor will usually recommend treatment, just like they would for other illnesses. Treatment usually includes therapy or medicines.


Your doctor may refer your child to a therapist. The type of therapy will depend on your child’s age, their maturity and the severity of their depression.

Pre-school children may benefit from forms of parent-child therapy that help with their emotional growth.

Older children may respond better to cognitive behavioural therapy. This type of therapy can focus on helping a person change how they think or increasing positive activity (behaviour) or both. Changing behaviour or thinking will change feelings. The therapist might recommend therapy with just your child or with your whole family.


Your child’s doctor might recommend medicines if your child’s depression is moderate to severe or if it persists after therapy.

The most common medicines for depression are called SSRIs (selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors). These work by regulating the brain’s levels of serotonin, a chemical in the body that helps regulate mood.

These medicines take a few weeks to work. At first, they might briefly increase symptoms of depression and thoughts of suicide. Because of this, it is important to monitor your child when they first start taking these medicines.

For safety reasons, medicines are not usually recommended for preschoolers. Very young children will usually only receive behaviour-based therapy.​

Key points

  • Depression occurs in children of all ages but is more common in teens.
  • Depression is different than regular sadness. It is a mental illness with a range of symptoms, including feelings of low self-worth, concentration difficulties and changes in sleep patterns and other behaviour that last longer than a few days.
  • A child is more likely to become if there is a family history of depression.
  • Depending on a child’s age and type of depression, they can be treated successfully with therapy, medicines or both.

Patrick J. McGrath, OC, PhD, FRSC



Ipser JC, Stein DJ, Hawkridge S, Hoppe L. Pharmacotherapy for anxiety disorders in children and adolescents. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2009, Issue 3. Art. No.: CD005170. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD005170.pub2.

Rudolph, Colin (editor). "Chapter 5 - Developmental-Behavioral Pediatrics". Rudolph's PediatricsNew York: McGraw-Hill, Medical Pub. Division, 2003.