Recognizing and treating depression in children and adolescents

Am J Health Syst Pharm. 2006 Feb 1;63(3):233-43. doi: 10.2146/ajhp050264.


Purpose: The clinical presentation and neurobiology of depression in youth and its appropriate treatment, as well as strategies for improving therapeutic benefit and preventing adverse outcomes, including suicide, are reviewed.

Summary: Functionally impairing depression occurs in 2-10% of children and adolescents. A diagnosis of depression should be considered when a physically healthy child exhibits depressed mood or anhedonia, multiple somatic complaints, or behavioral changes, such as bullying, aggression, and social withdrawal. Risk factors for depression include childhood trauma, genetic susceptibility, and environmental stressors. Antidepressants and cognitive behavioral therapy are the most effective treatments for adolescents with depression. Youth are at risk for the same adverse effects as adults but have an increased risk of behavioral activation, or switch, to mania and suicidal thoughts and behaviors early in treatment. Compared with other antidepressants, fluoxetine has the most evidence for safety and efficacy, particularly in adolescents 12 years or older. There is very little evidence for the effectiveness of any antidepressant in children 11 years and younger. Youth receiving antidepressants should be monitored closely for new-onset or worsening suicidality, particularly during the first two weeks after starting medication, and for three months of therapy. Behavioral activation, aggression, worsening depression, anxiety, insomnia, or impulsivity can herald a switch to mania or suicidality.

Conclusion: Depression in youth is common and treatable and responds best to multimodal treatment combining patient and family education, cognitive behavioral therapy, and antidepressant medication. The potential benefits of antidepressants outweigh the risks for adolescents. Family and psychotherapeutic interventions are most effective for prepubertal children.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Antidepressive Agents / administration & dosage
  • Antidepressive Agents / therapeutic use
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Clinical Trials as Topic
  • Counseling
  • Depression / diagnosis*
  • Depression / drug therapy*
  • Depression / etiology
  • Depression / physiopathology
  • Female
  • Fluoxetine / administration & dosage
  • Fluoxetine / therapeutic use
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Monitoring, Physiologic
  • Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors / administration & dosage
  • Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors / therapeutic use
  • United States


  • Antidepressive Agents
  • Serotonin Uptake Inhibitors
  • Fluoxetine