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Depression in children

9-minute read

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Key facts

  • Children with depression feel unhappy, miserable or irritable, and may describe this as being “grumpy” or “down”.
  • The signs of depression in children involve changes in the way they think, feel or behave. They may become uninterested in things they normally enjoy.
  • Depression affects up to 1 in 50 children, both girls and boys.
  • If you think your child may have depression, you should speak to their doctor as soon as you can.

What is depression in children?

Depression is a mental health condition that can affect people of all ages. Children with depression may feel unhappy, miserable or irritable. They might describe this as feeling “grumpy” or “down”. You may notice that they are uninterested in things they normally enjoy.

While it is normal to feel unhappy sometimes, if these feelings interfere with your child's activities or social life, or they go on for more than 2 weeks, they may have depression.

Children with depression have different symptoms than teenagers or adults with depression, and they may not be able to express their feelings clearly.

This page is about depression in children; however, many aspects and risk factors of depression are not age specific. Go here for general information about depression.

How common is depression in children?

Depression affects as many as 1 in 50 children and is just as common in boys as it is in girls. Depression is less common in children than it is in teenagers.

What causes depression in children?

Depression can be caused by a wide range of factors, and every child has their own circumstances. Traumatic events during childhood, such as a death in the family, abuse, bullying or homelessness, make depression more likely.

Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander children, and children who are refugees or asylum seekers, are also more likely to experience depression.

Children who have other conditions, including autism spectrum disorder, learning disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or significant disability, are all more likely to experience depression. Having someone in the family with a psychiatric illness also makes depression more likely.

Close relationships with other children and adults are important for children, and not having these relationships makes depression more likely.

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused disruption for a lot of children, who may have been away from friends and family for a long time. This can increase the risk of depression.

Children can also develop depression for no obvious reason, and the fact that there is no clear cause doesn't mean that a child is not experiencing depression.

What are the signs of depression in children?

The signs of depression in children involve changes in the way they feel, think or behave. There are also physical signs of depression.

Children with depression may feel:

Children with depression may think:

Children with depression may behave in unusual ways, such as:

Children can also have physical signs of depression, such as:

If your child has had any of these symptoms for 2 weeks or more, or if their symptoms stop them from managing at home or school as well as they normally do, speak to your child's doctor.

Children can also have severe depression and suicidal thoughts or actions.

CHECK YOUR SYMPTOMS — Use the Symptom Checker and find out if you need to seek medical help.

Suicide and crisis support

If you or someone close to you is in an emergency, or at immediate risk of harm, call triple zero (000). To talk to someone now call Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467 or Lifeline 13 11 14.

When should I seek help?

If your child has signs of depression for 2 weeks or more, or if you are concerned that they may have depression, you should speak to your child's doctor. The sooner your child can get help, the sooner they can start to feel better.

Your child's doctor will be able to assess your child and build a mental health treatment plan with you. This is a plan which maps out the goals for treatment and includes the services and resources available to you.

If your doctor thinks that other health professionals, such as a paediatrician, psychologist or psychiatrist, should be involved, they will be able to refer you to someone who can help.

If your child has been having occasional signs of depression or is just feeling sad, they could reach out to a school counsellor, friend or family member for help.

FIND A HEALTH SERVICE — The Service Finder can help you find doctors, pharmacies, hospitals and other health services.

How can I help a child with depression?

If your child has depression, they may need your help to understand what they are feeling and to seek help. You can help them find words to express their feelings and take them to see a doctor. Their doctor will ask about your child's behaviour, feelings and may also check some physical signs that might indicate depression.

Whatever treatment your doctor recommends, your child will need your help practically, to arrange their treatment, and emotionally, since they may be confused or worried about what is happening to them.

It may also help to discuss your child's situation with their teacher and any other adults they spend a lot of time with. Making other people aware of what's going on can help them be more sensitive to the situation and give your child extra support.

How is depression in children treated?

Your doctor can help you build a mental health treatment plan for your child if they have depression. The treatment plan is written up by your doctor and will help you access the Medicare rebate on up to 20 sessions per year with a mental health professional, with the cost partly covered by Medicare.

The plan may include different treatment strategies and tools. Your doctor may recommend a referral to a psychologist, social worker, psychiatrist or paediatrician.

You can support your child at home by:

Your doctor may also refer you to leaflets or online resources that point to help and support. If your child is being bullied or not getting the support they need at home, it is important to focus on solving these problems as part of treating your child's depression.

Your doctor may also refer your child for psychological therapy. This could be cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), interpersonal therapy (IPT), family therapy or individual therapy.

If your child's symptoms do not improve, your doctor may refer you to a child psychiatrist who can discuss medicines for depression (antidepressants).

Few medicines have been proven to be effective at treating depression in children. Any child prescribed medicines for depression must be closely monitored by their doctor for their safety.

ASK YOUR DOCTOR — Preparing for an appointment? Use the Question Builder for general tips on what to ask your GP or specialist.

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