Depression Causes & Effects

No one experiences depression the same way as someone else. Understanding the signs, symptoms and side effects of depression is a key component toward starting the recovery journey.

Understanding Depression

Learn about depression

Depression is more than bad moods and feeling blue from time to time, although those are normal experiences that everyone faces from time to time – especially in the turbulent teen years. Normal setbacks and disappointments are common and in time most children and teens are able to get over feeling hurt or sad. However, some children and teens develop depression, a mood disorder that causes persistent feelings of sadness and loss of interest in once-enjoyed sports, activities, and friends. Depression affects every area of a child’s life – the way he or she thinks, feels, and behaves are all colored by depression. Kids who have depression describe feeling hopeless about everything, that nothing is worth their energy, and that the world is a difficult place and they can’t do anything to make it any better. Depression can even lead to a number of physical or other emotional problems in a child’s life, making going to school, keeping up with friends, and interacting with family challenging. Many kids, especially if they’re over the age of 12, turn to drugs or alcohol as a way to numb the emotional pain they experience. Unfortunately, this is only a quick solution to a very real problem.

While depression was once thought to be a disorder that only impacted adults, it’s now understood that depression can affect anyone at any age. Any time depression in children or teens is suspected, action should be taken as soon as possible to improve treatment outcomes and reduce any long-term consequences. A parent who suspects that his or her child is suffering from depression should seek the advice of the child’s doctor; depression is a very serious illness, but with the right combination of therapies, it is also a very treatable one.


Depression statistics

Depression is one of the most common mental health disorders in the United States and it’s only been in the past few decades that depression in children and teens received attention. Each year, depression impacts about 17 million people of all ages, races, and socioeconomic groups. Experts estimate that as many as 1 in every 33 children and 1 in every 8 teens have depression.

Causes and Risk Factors

Causes and risk factors for depression

Researchers in the mental health field do not believe that depression is caused by a single factor; rather it’s believed that a number of environmental, physical, and genetic factors work together to cause depression in children and teens. The most common causes and risk factors for childhood and teen depression include:

Genetic: Depression is known to run in families. Children and teens who have a first-degree relative such as a parent or sibling with depression are at greater risk for developing the disorder than those without a family history.

Physical: Through neuroimaging studies, it’s been shown that people with depression have minute changes in the structure of their brain. Additionally, low levels of certain neurotransmitters, notably serotonin and dopamine, may cause children to be at greater risk for depression. The hormonal changes associated with puberty may also play a role in the development of late childhood and teen depression.

Environmental: Traumatic life events, especially when these events occur in rapid succession, may trigger depression in some children and teens.

Risk Factors:

  • Childhood sexual or physical abuse
  • Death of a loved one
  • Financial struggles
  • Childhood trauma
  • Low self-esteem
  • Serious, chronic illness
  • Overly dependent personality
  • Drug or alcohol abuse
  • Anxiety disorders

Signs and Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of depression

Signs and symptoms of depression in children and teens are often different than depressive symptoms in adults. In fact, depression in children or teens is often dismissed as a “normal rite of passage,” or as the normal changes associated with these turbulent years. Common signs and symptoms of depression in teens and children may include:

Behavioral symptoms:

  • Irritability
  • Feeling too tired to do even a simple task
  • Anger
  • Increased anxiety
  • Lack of pleasure in once-enjoyed past-times
  • Social withdrawal
  • Drug or alcohol usage
  • Increased risky behaviors
  • Increased tearfulness
  • Loss of interest in hobbies and activities
  • Clinginess to parent or other person
  • Demanding of other people’s attention
  • Restlessness
  • Performing some activities in excess

Physical symptoms:

  • Changes in appetite
  • Changes in appearance
  • Weight loss or gain
  • Fatigue and low energy
  • Sleeplessness or extreme sleepiness
  • Physical complaints – stomachaches, headaches – that don’t respond to treatment
  • Sluggishness in speech, responses, movement
  • Agitation and fidgeting

Cognitive symptoms:

  • Trouble paying attention
  • Poor academic performance
  • Impaired thinking
  • Negative outlook about the world
  • Difficulty organizing thoughts
  • Challenges completing tasks

Psychosocial symptoms:

  • Feelings of sadness
  • Feeling as if  worthless
  • Low self-esteem
  • Increased sensitivity to rejection
  • Inner turmoil
  • Worrying
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Feeling helpless that anything will improve in the future
  • Guilt
  • Thoughts of death, dying, or suicide


Effects of depression

Even with the growing body of research into childhood and teen depression, unfortunately many children and teens do not get the help they need to recover from this very treatable illness. Left untreated, there are a number of consequences of depression that can last a lifetime. The most common long-term effects and consequences of child and teen depression include:

  • Worsening emotional health
  • Substance use and abuse
  • Anxiety, panic disorder, social phobia
  • Interpersonal relationship problems
  • Problems at work or school
  • Family problems
  • Increased risks for physical health problems
  • Self-harming, self-mutilation behaviors
  • Suicidal thoughts and behaviors

Co-Occurring Disorders

Depression and co-occurring disorders

Depression in teens and children often occurs with other types of mental health disorders. The most common co-occurring, comorbid mental health disorders include:

  • Anxiety disorders
  • ADHD
  • Disruptive behavior disorders – oppositional defiant disorder or conduct disorder
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder
  • Bipolar disorder
  • Alcohol abuse
  • Substance abuse