Depression: Overview

What is depression?

Depression is an illness that involves a person feeling deep sadness or a lack of interest in activities that they previously enjoyed.

Every child and teen experiences sadness at some point in their life. Often this is a result of common stressors such as a big change, disappointment or the loss of a loved one.

Depression differs from this type of sadness because it:

  • lasts longer (from weeks to months)
  • interferes with everyday functioning.

Depression also affects a person’s sleep, concentration and appetite and can also lead to feelings of guilt, hopelessness, worthlessness and, in severe cases, suicide.

What causes depression?

A number of risk factors contribute to depression.

Biological factors

Biological factors include our genes, as depression is more likely when there is a history of it in the family. After puberty, it is also more common in girls than boys.

Psychological factors

Psychological factors include how a person tends to respond to stress. Someone who experiences more negative emotions in response to a stressor is more likely to experience depression.

Social factors

Social factors include various stressors in a child’s or teen’s environment, such as the loss of a parent or caregiver, divorce, bullying, poverty, difficulties at school and abuse or neglect.

How common is depression in children and teens?

Currently, about 2 per cent of children and 8 per cent of teens in Canada experience depression.

Previous research suggested that people often experienced their first episode of depression in their mid-20s. However, more recent research suggests that most adults with depression actually experience their first symptoms of depression as children and teens.

How to help your child if they seem depressed

  • First, talk to your child about their feelings and any stressors that might be contributing. Be sure to listen and offer support.
  • Reassure your child and help them figure out how to deal with any stressors.
  • Encourage your child to return to the activities they previously enjoyed, and allow them to choose which ones to start with.
  • If your child has missed school, encourage them to return and address any possible stressors, such as bullying.
  • When your child shows they are making an effort to take part, reward them with praise.

When to see a doctor for your child’s depression

See a doctor if:

  • your child’s low mood or irritability prevents them from going to school, spending time with friends, playing sports, pursuing hobbies or doing other everyday activities
  • your child expresses thoughts of self-harm or suicide
  • you have (or suspect you have) depression or another mental health condition and it is preventing you from offering enough help to your child on your own.

Your doctor can diagnose depression, if appropriate, based on typical signs and symptoms.

If your child has voiced thoughts of suicide with a plan, protect your child by going with them to your nearest emergency department.

Does depression occur with other conditions?

Depression commonly occurs with other conditions, especially anxiety disorders. It can also occur with:

Key points

  • Sadness in response to big changes or losses can be normal, but it can be a sign of depression if it lasts for weeks to months and begins to interfere with everyday activities.
  • Depression has a number of risk factors, including a person's genetics, the way they respond to stress and their family or school environment.
  • See your doctor if your child is no longer attending school or extra-curricular activities. Go to the nearest emergency department if your child is expressing thoughts of suicide with a plan.
  • Depression can occur with a number of other disorders, most frequently anxiety disorders.​


Further information

For more information on depression, please see the following pages:

Depression: Signs and symptoms

Depression: Treatment with medications

Depression: Treatment with psychotherapy and lifestyle changes​

Marijana Jovanovic, MD, FRCPC

Daphne Korczak MD, MSc, FRCPC (Paediatrics), FRCPC (Psychiatry)​

Irfan Mian, MD, FRCPC, DABPN​​​