Depression in children & young people

Depression doesn't just affect adults. It is also quite common in children and young people. The earlier a young person experiencing depression can talk to someone who can help them access treatment, the better. The longer it goes on the more likely it is to stay with them into adulthood.

Key points:

  • If you are feeling depressed you are not alone. Depression is common in young people and can occur in children and teens.
  • If you are concerned about your own or your young person's depression see your doctor or talk to someone at Youthline 0800 376 633.
  • The earlier depression is treated, the sooner the person with depression will start to feel better.
  • As well as seeking help from a GP, there are many things a young person can do to improve their mood, such as being active, eating well and getting enough sleep.
  • Find someone for yourself or your young person to talk to – this may be a parent, a teacher, a counsellor, a GP or a family friend.
  • Depression is a key risk factor for suicide in young people, especially if the young person has feelings of hopelessness. If you have suicidal thoughts or are worried about someone you care for, talk to your doctor or free call Lifeline 0800 543 354 anytime.
Myths about depression
  • NOT TRUE – depression is a sign of weakness.
  • NOT TRUE – a depressed person can just 'snap out of it'.
  • NOT TRUE – warning signs of depression are just the normal 'moodiness' of adolescence.
  • NOT TRUE – every young person with depressive symptoms has a depressive disorder.
  • NOT TRUE – young people will grow out of depression.
  • NOT TRUE – young people have got nothing to be depressed about.
  • NOT TRUE – talking about depression (or suicide) will only make things worse.
  • NOT TRUE – if a young person is depressed there's no way they would be suicidal.

What causes depression in children and young people?

Usually, there is no one single cause of depression in children and young people. Often it is a combination of a reaction to stress factors outside themselves and their own individual chemical make up.

Depression may be triggered if this stress gets too hard to bear or goes on for too long. Particular events, such as the loss of a friend or the change in seasons, especially from autumn to winter, may be the reason for depression in a number of people.

For some, depression may be biological. The mood-switching mechanisms in their brain may be out of balance. This biological depression is often inherited and is particularly likely if there is a clear family history of depression. 

Depression can also arise after a physical illness and, sometimes, alcohol or medications can change the body's chemistry and lead to low mood.

Some types of personality may be more prone to depression than others. Shy, withdrawn teenagers, for example, may feel more isolated and alone than their more outgoing peers. They also may find it harder than others at seeking support when pressures and stresses become difficult to handle and this may lead to them experiencing depression.

Depression is often hidden

Depression in young people is often masked by anger and aggression, usually because they can't or don't feel comfortable expressing sadness and hopelessness. 

Younger children have a tendency to isolate themselves when they are feeling depressed, so they may appear quiet and shy at these times.

There is a strong association between depression in young people and anxiety, conduct disorders, substance abuse, attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and eating disorders. These other problems often mask the depression, which emphasises the need to see a GP about your concerns as soon as possible.

There are some good online tests, like this self test, to see if you or your child are depressed.

What are the risk factors for depression?

There are many factors that can contribute to depression for young people, including:

  • Family history of depression.
  • Dramatic changes in mood, low self-esteem, feelings of hopelessness, being negative about life and having family or whanau problems.
  • Sexual, physical and emotional abuse.
  • Bodily changes/ hormonal changes/ physical illness.
  • Fear of growing up and independence.
  • Changes in life situations.
  • Difficulties with friendships, break ups, belonging, identifying with peer group, peer pressure, feeling somehow different.
  • Dealing with sexual feelings, sexual and gender identity.
  • Having unwanted sex.
  • Conflict between family, cultural or religious values.
  • Grief which is unresolved from death or other losses (eg, death of a parent before child is 18, or parents separating).
  • School problems, including fear of failure.
  • Continued put-downs or criticisms from others.
  • Money problems, worries about getting a job.
  • Alcohol and other drug problems.
  • Poor nutrition or lack of exercise.
  • Feeling spiritually lost.

What are the signs of depression?

One or two of the following signs of depression may be just part of growing up. However, if a young person has had a number of them over the last 6 to 12 months, it is likely they are depressed:

  • Being irritable and snapping at others for no reason.
  • Crying easily and often.
  • Lack of concentration, less interest in school work, may stop wanting to go or begin refusing to go to school.
  • Lack of interest in usual activities, may stop going out with friends.
  • Being forgetful.
  • Not being able to sleep or wanting to sleep more than usual.
  • Slow reactions and speech.
  • Withdrawal from usual social contact, silent and withdrawn at home.
  • Changes in eating habits resulting in weight loss or gain.
  • Loss of appetite.
  • Low energy levels.
  • Muscle tension and headaches.
  • Feeling tired all the time.
  • Stressed or drawn facial features.
  • Unexplained physical complaints, especially stomach pains.

While the signs of depression are similar in adults and children, depressed children and adolescents may show more anger and irritation than adults do. They may also have more changes in mood than adults with depression, seeming quite happy one day and really down in the dumps the next.

Young people may not recognise their problem as depression or, if they do, may feel unable to talk about it. Often the feelings that come with depression are so strong they do not tell anyone else because they feel no good or they are scared they are going mad.

How is depression treated?

There is a range of treatments for children or young people with depression. Treatment usually focuses on psychological therapies and lifestyle changes. Antidepressants are not routinely used for children and young people but may be recommended in some cases if depression doesn't respond to other treatments.

Your GP will be able to talk to you about your options and help you work out which are best for you, or your young person. He or she may also refer you to a mental health specialist. Read more about mental health services for youth.

Talking therapy

One common treatment is talking therapy, which can help with thinking patterns and anxiety, problem-solving skills and self-esteem. It is also commonly called cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), or interpersonal therapy if the focus is more on relationships and interpersonal skills.

Online programmes

For mild-to-moderate depression, online programmes are popular and effective and are more convenient than face-to-face sessions for some people.

  • SPARX  A free online tool to help NZ young people learn to deal with depression and anxiety.
  • The Lowdown A website created to help youth understand and deal with depression. Has an online chat room, personal stories, music and more.

Lifestyle changes for teens

Improvements to three aspects of daily life can greatly affect mood: sleep, exercise and the use of alcohol or drugs. It's worth discussing each of these with your doctor.

  • Address your basic needs – stay physically active, make time for pleasurable activities and practice relaxing.
  • Break problems down into simple goals and small steps, and give yourself credit for each step you accomplish.
  • Spend time with people who can support you – just being in the company of friends and loved ones can help to boost your mood.
  • Avoid alcohol and drugs which often make depression worse.
  • If you are not sleeping well, read about ways to improve your sleep here. 

Learn more

Depression KidsHealth (NZ)
Depression in children Black Dog Institute (AU)
Depression in teenagers and young adults Black Dog Institute (AU)
Mental Health Foundation New Zealand

Credits: Adapted from original material provided by the Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand.