How does depression affect children and young people?
When adults are depressed, feelings of sadness can be very obvious. But in children and young people, symptoms of depression can look more like irritability, sleep changes, loss of appetite or weight loss. Unlike adults, children and young people are often unable to explain how they’re feeling, especially when depressed.
Children and young people who are depressed may:
- cry or become irritable or angry easily
- be difficult to engage and motivate
- have difficulty concentrating in class and completing their work
- seem withdrawn and have difficulty relating to peers and educators.
Depression can make it hard for children and young people to learn
Without professional support, this can lead to long-term effects on their school achievement.
Sometimes older children or young people experiencing depression may talk about wanting to die or harm themselves. This can be alarming, but it’s important that you take this seriously. Whether such talk represents a clear intention of suicide or is a way of expressing feelings of depression, it indicates a high level of distress that requires attention. Read more about suicide prevention.
There’s no single cause of depression
Many factors come into play. Life events (for example, a death in the family or family separation), biological factors (for example, genetics), learning community-based factors (for example, peer group difficulties, especially bullying) and psychological factors (for example, a tendency to think negatively).
Depression can significantly impact the lives of children and young people. But getting the right type of help – and getting it early – can make a huge difference in their mental health.
What signs should I look out for?
Depression's common but can often be missed in children and young people
Since the symptoms of depression in childhood are often negative behaviours (for example, irritability or whingeing), it’s easy for adults to feel annoyed and to blame or punish the child for their behaviour. In adolescence, depression can be labelled as merely a ‘teenage problem’ – which can lead to other signs of depression being missed.
A child or young person who is depressed may:
- have low energy and be difficult to motivate
- lose interest easily in an activity they usually enjoy
- have difficulty concentrating or making decisions
- make a lot of negative comments about themselves
- look for what’s wrong rather than see the positives in situations
- be very difficult to please
- be irritable, easily annoyed or upset
- seem sad and cry easily
- have trouble sleeping or want to sleep most of the day
- experience changes in weight (including both weight loss and gain)
- withdraw from peer group activities or social situations.
Be You Professional Learning
Learn more about observing children and young people’s behavioural and mood changes in the Notice module.
What can I do if I have concerns?
As an educator, you may notice signs of depression when you see changes in a child or young person’s behaviour and mood. While your role isn’t to diagnose – if you have concerns about someone’s mental health and wellbeing, there are a range of ways you can support them.
Be supportive and make time to listen
If you’re concerned that changes in a child or young person’s behaviour might suggest they’re feeling depressed – the first step is to have a conversation. Ask how they’re feeling, let them know it’s okay to seek help, and that you’re ready to listen to whatever they want to say.
If the child or young person doesn’t want to talk; respect their choice but don't let this throw you off – it’s okay to keep reminding them that you care and will listen to their story another time.
If the child or young person does wish to talk, help them open up by showing interest and listening to them talk about school, friends and home. If they have difficulty explaining how they’re feeling, suggest some feeling words (for example, angry or sad) to stimulate discussion. If a situation has caused them distress, help them solve the problem or find ways to improve it.
Talking about problems in a supportive way can often start to improve a child or young person’s mood.
If this doesn’t improve within a few weeks, it’s important to seek additional support.
Talk with the school wellbeing staff, psychologist or counsellor
Such discussions may be useful in deciding the next steps to take in helping the child or young person. It may lead to a meeting with the family to talk further.
Connect with families
It’s important to appropriately share information with families and find out whether the child or young person’s mood is similar at home. When mood and behaviour changes are happening at home and at school, it can suggest the mental health issues are more serious.
Address school-based triggers
If you believe that school-based triggers, such as bullying, may be impacting the child or young person’s mental health and wellbeing, raise it with school leaders to ensure issues are addressed appropriately.
Give positive feedback
While this is important for all children and young people, it’s even more critical when a student is depressed. Your positive feedback will help to counter their tendency to tune into only negative feedback about themselves which can maintain low mood.
Provide opportunities for success
Let the student know you have confidence in their ability and support them to succeed socially and academically.
Encourage getting involved
Praise and encourage children and young people for their efforts. Try to involve them in physical activity and enjoyable events. Encouraging children and young people to keep up with normal routines and activities helps to distract them from negative thinking patterns.
Model positive actions
Label experiences to encourage interactions that promote positivity.
For example, with younger children, you might say,
“That was fun”,
“I liked Jack’s joke, it made me smile”
“I like happy stories. They make me feel happy too.”
For older children and adolescents, you might say,
“I can see you put a lot of effort into achieving such a good grade for this project. That must be very rewarding”
“It’s great that you’re thinking about how to look after yourself. Sometimes when I’m going through a difficult time, I find it helpful having someone to talk through my options with. Perhaps we can work out together how we can get some information or help.”
Foster positive social relationships
Children and young people who are depressed may withdraw from social contact. However, friends can provide important support. Remind other students about how to help everyone feel they belong.
Provide extra learning support
Help students to catch up once they start to feel better. This support is particularly important, as falling behind in school work can cause stress that may aggravate depression.
Be You Professional Learning
Learn more about inquiring sensitively about your concerns with children, young people, their families and your colleagues in the Inquire module.
What support is available?
Different health professionals (such as general practitioners, psychologists and psychiatrists) offer different types of supports and treatments for depression. Professional support can help the child or young person and their family learn skills to tackle the depression and feel better about life and themselves.
In diagnosing depression, mental health professionals will:
- look for key signs and symptoms in a person’s behaviour – when several of these occur together for a prolonged period and are out of character for the individual, this can signal depression
- look for how the signs and symptoms interfere with the person’s daily life – this could mean talking with the family, the child or young person themselves and educators to find out about the individual’s emotions and behaviours, and any recent stresses they’ve experienced
- use the information gathered for a professional support plan that will suit the child or young person and their situation.
Be You Professional Learning
Learn more about providing support for children, young people and their families by helping them access information and support, in the Provide module.
What treatments are effective?
Evidence shows that professional psychological support can reduce the time it takes to recover from depression and decrease the likelihood that another episode of depression will occur.
Cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) involves working with a therapist to identify negative thinking patterns that lead to depression and teaches the child or young person strategies to change these thoughts. It builds important coping skills that help to prevent depression from occurring again.
Therapy is tailored to the individual, and usually includes age-appropriate skills for:
- telling the difference between optimistic and pessimistic thoughts
- challenging negative thinking patterns
- solving problems in more helpful ways
- relaxation and exercise.
To get the best outcome, a professional support plan will include strategies to reduce the stresses experienced in the child or young person’s environment. For example, if the individual is being bullied, action should be taken to stop it and prevent it from recurring. If there’s conflict in the child or young person’s family, this should be addressed.
Antidepressants are a group of medications commonly used to treat clinical depression in adolescents and adults. For children, evidence of their effectiveness is mixed. The use of medication may be part of the professional support plan.
Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) (2011). Young Australians: their health and wellbeing. Canberra: AIHW. Retrieved from https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports/children-youth/young-australians-health-wellbeing-key-indicators/contents/table-of-contents.
Beyond Blue (2018). What is depression. Melbourne: Beyond Blue. Retrieved from https://www.beyondblue.org.au/the-facts/depression.
Mission Australia (2017). Youth mental health report: Youth Survey 2012-16. Melbourne: Mission Australia. Retrieved from https://blackdoginstitute.org.au/docs/default-source/research/evidence-and-policy-section/2017-youth-mental-health-report_mission-australia-and-black-dog-institute.pdf?sfvrsn=6.
Orygen. (2018). Depression. Melbourne: Orygen. Retrieved from https://www.orygen.org.au/Education-Training/Resources-Training/Resources/Free/Reference-Library/Depression.
Young Minds Matter (2017). The mental health of Australian Children and Adolescents: Educational Outcomes. Perth: Telethon Kids Institute. Retrieved from https://youngmindsmatter.telethonkids.org.au/siteassets/media-docs---young-minds-matter/childandadolescentmentalhealthandeducationaloutcomesdec2017.pdf.
Depression is more than just feeling sad or down and can have serious negative impacts on a child or young person’s wellbeing if left untreated.