Depression in Adolescents

Major depression affects 6% of adolescents with an additional 5-10% presenting with sub-syndromal symptoms of depression. There is a 2:1 female:male ratio of major depression in adolescents. Teens frequently don’t present with the typical DSM criteria for Major Depressive Disorder (MDD). Common depressive symptoms in adolescents include: irritability (as opposed to reporting a sad mood), mood lability, being quick to get angry, low self-esteem, hopelessness, sleep disturbance, appetite disturbance, suicidal thoughts and attempts, isolation, loss of interest in activities they previously enjoyed, and impairment in academic and social functioning. They sometimes report new-onset difficulty with sustaining attention and being academically motivated, which doesn’t fit well with a diagnosis of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder – inattentive subtype because the symptoms were not present at a younger age. A major depressive episode can be triggered by a psychosocial stressor, but, if the symptoms last longer than 2 weeks, then it raises the suspicion of being more than an adjustment to a stressor.

Depression is highly co-morbid with other psychiatric disorders, like anxiety disorders, substance abuse disorders and disruptive behavior disorders. If an adolescent is presenting with depressive symptoms, it is important to take a careful history of bipolar symptoms, including current and past manic, hypomanic or psychotic symptoms, family history of bipolar disorders, and history of medication-induced manic or hypomanic symptoms. Twenty percent of young patients with depression go on to develop bipolar disorder as adults. The typical timeline is that adults with bipolar disorder will report they first experienced depressive symptoms starting in childhood or adolescence.

Adolescents will sometimes turn to drugs, like alcohol and marijuana, to self-medicate. If they are using on a regular basis, the use can be contributing to their depressive symptoms, and psychoeducation about that interaction will be important. Ongoing regular drug use can also limit the efficacy of a medication treatment for depression, if that is being considered, and it is important to talk with teens about limiting their drug use if they are interested in a medication intervention.

In terms of general treatment guidelines, consider therapy alone for mild-moderate symptoms and consider combination therapy and medication treatment for moderate-severe symptoms, particularly if there is a significant impairment from their symptoms. Fluoxetine is the medication that has been studied the most for MDD in children and adolescents but the other SSRIs, like citalopram, escitalopram and sertraline, can also be utilized. Other options to consider are bupropion and mirtazapine. The antidepressants to consider avoiding include: paroxetine and venlafaxine (because of their short half-lives, there is a higher risk of side effects and discontinuation symptoms with inconsistent use), and duloxetine (because of limited data in children and adolescents). It is important to consider a slower titration, starting with ½ the usual starting dose, to minimize the risk of side effects including akathisia (internal restlessness), behavioral activation and increased anxiety. So for example if considering fluoxetine, a starting dose of 10mg qday would be appropriate with a plan to increase to 20mg after 1-2 weeks if tolerated and needed. It is important to discuss the length of time it can take for a patient to see a full positive result, so that the teen and family is realistic with their expectations. It is also important to carefully discuss with the teen and family the FDA black box warning about the increase in risk of spontaneous reporting of suicidal thinking and have close monitoring (follow-up in 1-2 weeks either in person or by phone), particularly when medication is started or when the dose is being increased.  With open disclosure and judicious monitoring this relatively infrequent side effect can comfortably managed, typically without having to terminate the medication trial.

It is our hope that this e-Weekly is helpful for primary care providers to develop comfort with assessing and treating adolescents with depression, as it is a fairly common presenting concern in the primary care office.

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