Depression in Children and Youth

A study of high school students' health, carried out in 2001 and the first of its scale in New Zealand, underlined New Zealand's big youth mental health problem.

  • Depression is a common disorder among under 18 year-olds and increases especially after the onset of puberty.
  • Depression often first becomes noticeable during adolescence and it is at this time that girls first outnumber boys in diagnosis.
  • Two thirds of girls had dieted in the past year and a third were unhappy with their weight.
  • Untreated depression may lead to failure to achieve full academic potential.
  • It may also cause disruption of key relationships, loss of self esteem, and self-harmful behaviours.
Girls twice as likely to be depressed as boys
An article in the New Zealand Dominion Post on 5 April 2003, reported on researched that had been published in the New Zealand Medical Journal.

According to the report, one in three teenage girls has thought about suicide in the past year and one in five girls shows significant signs of depression.

The study of 10,000 high school students -carried out in 2001 and the first of its scale in New Zealand - showed that twice as many girls as boys are depressed and they are twice as likely to have suicidal thoughts. 

The study's lead author, Auckland University senior lecturer Peter Watson, said the figures underlined New Zealand's big youth mental health problem. He said the study did not examine why girls experienced such high levels of depression, but provided some clues - two thirds of girls had dieted in the past year and a third were unhappy with their weight.

He said depressive symptoms were classified as feeling consistently sad or down, disturbed eating or sleeping patterns, and a lack of hope.

Overall, he said, the study showed students felt positive about their lives. Four out of five reported they were healthy, had good relationships with their parents and families, close connections to their schools and adults at school who cared about them and treated them fairly.

Students in the study were randomly selected from 114 schools.

Depression and Adolescents
Depression is a common disorder among children (under 18 year-olds) and increases with age, especially after the onset of puberty.
The rates of depression may be higher in children with conditions such as ADHD, behavioural disorder, eating disorders, anxiety disorders, and in those with general medical conditions and chronic illnesses.

Depression often first becomes noticeable during adolescence and it is at this time that girls first outnumber boys in diagnosis for depression.

Previously, the 'moody adolescent' was judged to be typical for teenagers, but we now consider that excessive irritability, moodiness, sleep and appetite change may signal a vulnerability to depression.

Common symptoms of adolescent depression are:
  • irritability
  • reduced energy
  • hopelessness
  • reduced social interactions
  • academic decline
  • changes in sleep and appetite
  • reduced social interactions
  • somatic symptoms
  • suicidal ideation

As the NZ study suggested, factors that may predispose adolescent girls to depression include the increase in hormones associated with puberty, changes in body shape as well as family stressors such as divorce and peer pressure.

Symptoms of depression in children
Most children will deny that they are suffering from depression. Aggression, excessive crying, denial of depression and even some physical symptoms, such as stomach aches and chronic headaches without identifiable cause, may be more common among preadolescent children.

Common symptoms of depression among adolescents and older pre-adolescent children include:

  • irritability,
  • withdrawal,
  • sleep disturbances ( sleep-walking, broken sleep patterns and nightmares)
  • act irresponsibly
  • eating problems
  • worry over little things, sensitivity to rejection
  • distrust of people not known well
  • truancy
  • breaking rules (home and at school)
  • smoking, drugs and/or alcohol experimentation
  • shoplifting
  • running away
  • loss of interest and/or pleasure in previously enjoyed activities,
  • sleep disturbance (reduced or increased sleep),
  • changes in appetite (reduced or increased appetite), and
  • reduced energy.
Most young people with depression suffer from academic decline.

Some youngsters may use cigarettes, drugs, and alcohol in an effort to alleviate their depression.

Conflict with authority may result from irritability.

Atypical symptoms such as excessive sleep, increased appetite, an extreme sensitivity to rejection, and irritability are more common among children than among adults.

Suicide and depression in children
Prompt identification and treatment of depression is important.

Untreated depression may lead to failure to achieve full academic potential, disruption of key relationships within and outside the family, loss of self esteem, and self-harmful behaviours which may include drug use, risk taking behaviors, and suicide.