Low Mood and Depression
The symptoms of depression can be complex and can vary widely between people. Depression doesn't just affect adults. Children and teenagers can get depressed too. Some studies show that almost one in four young people will experience depression before they are 19 years old. It is important to get help early if you think your child may be depressed. The longer it goes on, the more likely it is to disrupt your child's life and turn into a long-term problem.
Generally, if you're depressed, you will have feelings of hopelessness and lose interest in things you used to enjoy. Depression can often come on gradually; the person may not recognise that something is wrong. Many people try to cope with their symptoms and carry on as normal as much as possible; others may be in denial or too embarrassed to accept or acknowledge the signs. It can sometimes take a friend or family member to suggest that something might be wrong.
Difficult or stressful events and experiences can leave us feeling down and can cause depression. It could be related to relationship problems, bereavement, sleep problems, stress at school, bullying, chronic illness or related to the teenage years/hormones, sexuality and/or gender issues. Sometimes people feel down without there being an obvious or identifiable reason.
What is the Difference Between Low Mood and Depression?
Typical symptoms of low mood include:
- Low self esteem
- Feeling anxious or panicky
A low mood will tend to lift after a few days or weeks or after the stressful, upsetting time has passed.
Low mood tends to improve by resolving any issues that may be a concern, getting enough sleep, talking through problems, improving your physical health and taking positive action. If low mood continues without improvement, it can be a sign of depression, especially if accompanied by:
- Feelings of low self-worth combined with a sense of hopelessness and helplessness
- Loss of interest in activities that would normally be enjoyable
Symptoms of Depression
Symptoms of depression persist for weeks or months and will, most likely, interfere with your work, social life and family life. They can include the following:
- low mood lasting 2 weeks or more
- not getting any enjoyment out of life
- feeling hopeless
- feeling tired or lacking energy
- not being able to concentrate on everyday things like reading or watching television
- being irritable or grumpy all the time
- comfort eating or losing your appetite
- sleeping more than usual or being unable to sleep
- having suicidal thoughts or thoughts about harming yourself
- being indecisive
- having significant changes in weight
Anxiety with Depression
Some children have problems with anxiety along with depression. (see separate page about anxiety). Some also have physical symptoms or will complain only of physical symptoms, such as headaches and stomach aches. Problems at school can be a sign of depression in children and teenagers and so can problem behaviour. Older children who are depressed may misuse drugs or alcohol. Younger children express themselves through play as well as words. You can learn a lot about how they're feeling by simply spending time with them and watching them play.
The psychological symptoms of depression include:
- continuous low mood or sadness
- feeling hopeless and helpless
- having low self-esteem
- feeling tearful
- feeling guilt-ridden
- feeling irritable and intolerant of others
- having no motivation or interest in things
- finding it difficult to make decisions
- not getting any enjoyment out of life
- feeling anxious or worried
- having suicidal thoughts or thoughts of harming yourself
Physical symptoms of depression
- moving or speaking more slowly than usual
- changes in appetite or weight (usually decreased, but sometimes increased)
- unexplained aches and pains
- lack of energy
- low sex drive (loss of libido)
- changes to your menstrual cycle
- disturbed sleep – for example, finding it difficult to fall asleep at night or waking up very early in the morning
Social symptoms of depression
- not doing well at school
- avoiding contact with friends and taking part in fewer social activities
- neglecting hobbies and interests
- having difficulties in home and family life
Talk to Your GP
Just because you experience one or more of these symptoms, it doesn’t mean you’re definitely affected by depression. It’s important to talk to a GP to get a full diagnosis and to check that there is no medical cause.
Depression can also be triggered at specific points in your life, such as during winter months (seasonal affective disorder/SAD) and after the birth of a child (postnatal depression). Bipolar disorder – also known as "manic depression", in bipolar disorder there are spells of both depression and excessively high mood (mania); the depression symptoms are similar to clinical depression, but the bouts of mania can include harmful behaviour, such as gambling, going on spending sprees and having unsafe sex.
Why is my child depressed?
Things that increase the risk of depression in children include:
- family difficulties
- physical, emotional or sexual abuse
- a family history of depression or other mental health problems
Sometimes depression is triggered by one difficult event, such as parents separating, a bereavement or problems with school or other children. Often, it's caused by a mixture of things. For example, your child may have inherited a tendency to depression and may have also experienced some difficult life events. It is common for all of us to experience it, at some point, in our lives. It is nobody’s fault and you mustn’t blame yourself.
Recognise the Signs and Get Help
If you think your child may be depressed, it is important to talk to them. Try to find out what's troubling them, if any significant event has happened and how they are feeling. Being able to talk to someone other than a parent is sometimes extremely helpful for children. Grandparents, uncles, aunts, teachers or even a counsellor can all offer support. Avoid persistent direct questioning as this can make them feel threatened. Try again another day if they don’t want to talk about it. Expressing feelings is hard enough at the best of time, especially for teens, when they are depressed it’s even more difficult.
Whatever is causing the problem, take it seriously. It may not seem a big deal to you, but it could be a major problem for your child. If your child doesn't want to talk to you, let them know that you are concerned about them and that you're there if they need you. Encourage them to talk to someone else they trust or are close to, such as another family member or friend. It may be useful to talk to other people who know your child and who may be able to give you further insight into what is happening.
Whatever the cause, if the child’s negative feelings don't go away, are too difficult for them or for you to cope with or are preventing the child from carrying on with normal life, you may need to get some support.
Talk to your child’s GP or call NHS 111. The GP can discuss the symptoms with you and your child, make a diagnosis and signpost you to the correct support.
What help is There?
If you have a child diagnosed with depression, their GP will discuss all of the available treatment options with you, including self-help, talking therapies and antidepressants. If necessary, they can refer your child to their local child and adolescent mental health service (CAMHS) for specialist help.
Involve your child in treatment choices. Contact maybe three different counsellors to get a feel for different approaches and types of people. If your child doesn’t ‘connect’ with a therapist, for example, find another one.
Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) is used as a term for all services that work with children and young people who have difficulties with their emotional or behavioural wellbeing. Getting help from a specialist CAMHS service is different depending on where you live. Waiting times can vary, too. Most CAHMS have their own website, which will have information about access, referrals and more, including phone numbers, so you can get in touch directly for detailed advice.
Specialist CAMHS are NHS mental health services that focus on the needs of children and young people. They are multidisciplinary teams that often consist of:
- social workers
- support workers
- occupational therapists
- psychological therapists – this may include child psychotherapists, family psychotherapists, play therapists and creative art therapists
- primary mental health link workers
- specialist substance misuse workers
Click the link to search for mental health support for young people in your area.
Teaching children self-help techniques is beneficial for many areas of life and sets them up for adult life and the emotions and difficulties that come with it.
Life changes, such as getting a regular good night's sleep, eating a healthy diet, reducing any alcohol intake and getting regular exercise, can help children feel more in control and more able to cope. Self-help techniques can include activities such as meditation, breathing exercises and learning ways to think about problems differently, such as Mindfulness. Self-help books, apps and online websites for mental health can provide or signpost you to different types of information and support. For older children, point them towards websites or helplines that can give them information on depression, drugs and self-harm so they can find out the facts themselves.
Combat isolation by helping to keep connections and communication going. Make opportunities for seeing friends and family; make time to chat regularly; do physical activities such as sports, silly and fun things; go for a walk; try to get them involved and interested in something.
There are lots of diverse types of talking therapies around, but they are not directly available to children, at the moment. Children should be able to access a service similar to the Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT) programme available to adults, which was designed to provide faster access to talking therapies for people with depression and anxiety disorders. The health committee have said they will be conducting an inquiry into the availability of child and adolescent mental health services. There are services you can go to for help without having to ask for a referral. There are many services you can go to for help without having to ask for a referral.
Look up services that provide mental health support for young people on this site
Antidepressants are commonly used to treat depression. There are several types available. If the GP prescribes your child antidepressants, they will discuss the various types, and which one would suit them best.
Antidepressants are not licensed to treat depression in children under 16. If your doctor does prescribe you an antidepressant while you are under 18, they should be extremely cautious about the dose and take your physical size into account. If your GP has prescribed antidepressants, it's important that the child keeps taking them and doesn’t stop taking them without support from the GP.
When to seek help immediately
If a child starts to talk about their life not being worth living or they want to or begin to harm themselves, or if they completely isolate themselves from you, family and friends get help straight away. You can either see your GP or call NHS 111.
- If you are worried about any aspect of your child's mental health, you can call the charity YoungMinds' free parents' helpline on 0808 802 5544(9.30am-4pm Monday to Friday) for advice.
The YoungMinds website also has mental health support and advice for your child.
- Family Lives is a charity specialising in families. You can call their confidential helpline on 0808 800 2222 (9am-9pm Monday to Friday, 10am-3pm Saturday to Sunday). You can also visit their forums.
Are you a young person in crisis?
Text the YoungMinds Crisis Messenger, for free 24/7 support across the UK if you are experiencing a mental health crisis.
If you need urgent help text YM to 85258
- All texts are answered by trained volunteers, with support from experienced clinical supervisors
- Texts are free from EE, O2, Vodafone, 3, Virgin Mobile, BT Mobile, GiffGaff, Tesco Mobile and Telecom Plus.
- Youth Wellbeing Directory
Lists of local services for young people’s mental health and wellbeing.
A guide to counselling services for young people and families.
Offers information about advice and counselling services in the UK for young people aged 12-25 years.
Confidential advice and support for young people who feel suicidal.
HOPELine UK: 0800 068 41 41
Text: 07786 209 697
Offers support to young men in the UK who are down or in a crisis.
Helpline: 0800 58 58 58 (Daily 17:00 - 0:00)
Emotional support for anyone in distress
Freephone (UK and Republic of Ireland): 116 123 (24 hours)