Health Topics Information

Childhood depression is on the rise

Childhood depression is on the rise

Depression among children is on the rise. And if not identified or treated early on, chances that your child will experience a relapse are very likely, with each episode becoming more severe.

Globally, pre-pandemic levels of anxiety and depression among our youth hovered at 11.6% and 12.9% respectively. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, studies show that the incidence has doubled to 25.2 and 20.5%. Those numbers are reflected in calls to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) Helpline. In 2019, the helpline received a total of 656,953. Calls jumped to 833,598 calls in 2020, a 27% increase.

Depression is a serious condition that should not be dismissed or stigmatized. “Depression interferes with a child’s growth and development, school performance, peer and family relationships and is the leading cause of suicide in our youth,” said CHI St. Alexus Health Pediatrician Menelik Mulu, MD. “The prevalence of depression related disorders increases significantly after puberty. By age 14, they are more than twice as common in girls as in boys.”

Risk factors for depression

While depression can be triggered by a variety of factors, according to the National Mental Health Association (NMHA), the following risk factors may increase a child’s risk of developing depression or depression-related disorders: family history of depression, life stresses such as losing a parent, divorce, or discrimination, abuse, neglect or trauma. Isolation and lack of social interaction have also been large factors in increasing the growing rate of depression among our youth during the pandemic.

Getting help is critical. It is estimated that more than 70% of children and adolescents with depressive disorders do not receive treatment. This is attributed in part to the stigma attached to the condition, denial and the fact that symptoms may be difficult to identify. Underdiagnosis and undertreatment tend to be greater in children younger than seven years old. This may be related to their inability to communicate their thoughts and emotions effectively.

How to identify depression

According to the National Mental Health Association (NMHA), the following symptoms in children may indicate depression:

  • Frequent sadness, tearfulness, or crying
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Chronic boredom
  • Withdrawal from friends and activities
  • Lack of enthusiasm or motivation
  • Decreased energy level
  • Major changes in eating or sleeping habits
  • Increased irritability, agitation, anger, or hostility
  • Frequent physical complaints such as headaches and stomachaches
  • Indecision or inability to concentrate
  • Feelings of worthlessness or excessive guilt
  • Extreme sensitivity to rejection or failure
  • Pattern of dark images in drawings or paintings
  • Play that involves excessive aggression directed toward oneself or others, or involves persistently sad themes
  • Recurring thoughts or talk of death, suicide, or self-destructive behavior
  • In younger children, symptoms of depression may include:
    • General aches and pains
    • Headaches
    • Stomachaches

How to treat depression

The good news is that depression is highly treatable. “If your child is demonstrating any of these symptoms for longer than two weeks, you should consult your pediatrician or family doctor,” says Mulu. “With a combination of individual, family and/or school counseling, and in some cases, antidepressants, 75 to 80% of children suffering from depression can be treated successfully.”


Menelik Mulu, MD 
Primary Care Clinics, CHI St. Alexius Williston