Updated: 24/08/16

Feeling low or sad is a common feeling for children and adults, and a normal reaction to experiences that are stressful or upsetting. When these feelings dominate and interfere with a person’s life, it can become an illness.

According to the Royal College of Psychiatrists, depression affects 2% of children under 12 years old, and 5% of teenagers. Depression can significantly affect a child’s ability to develop, to learn or to maintain and sustain friendships.

There is some degree of overlap between depression and other problems. For example, around 10% to 17% of children who are depressed are also likely to exhibit behaviour problems. Clinicians making a diagnosis of depression will generally use the categories major depressive disorder (MDD – where the person will show a number of depressive symptoms to the extent that they impair work, social or personal functioning) or dysthymic disorder (DD – less severe than MDD, but characterised by a daily depressed mood for at least two years).

The strongest evidence supports prevention/early intervention approaches that include a focus on:

• regular work with small groups of children focusing on cognition and behaviour – for example changing thinking patterns and developing problemsolving skills – to relieve and prevent depressive symptoms.

Where particular problems have been identified the strongest evidence supports:

• therapeutic approaches focusing on cognition and behaviour, family therapy or inter-personal therapy lasting for up to three months (in severe cases these interventions are more effective when combined with medication);
• psychoanalytic child psychotherapy may also be helpful for children whose depression is associated with anxiety;
• family therapy for children whose depression is associated with behavioural problems or suicidal ideation;
• for mild depression, non-directive supportive counselling.

Mental Health and Behaviour – advice for schools (2016)