Screening Adolescents and Teens for Depression

Written by Jennifer Lai, M.D. on Mar 19, 2016, 7:30:00 AM

The American Academy of Pediatrics recently made changes to its guidelines for children’s checkups. One new addition is screening for depression in adolescents ages 11-21. While this might seem young to be screened for such a serious illness, it makes sense when you consider that a large number of teen deaths occur as a result of suicide, and frank talks about depression might have prevented some of these tragedies. 

What Will the Screening Entail?

The majority of screening for depression in adolescents consists of asking a series of pointed questions regarding their emotions and how they handle stress. There are also questions that deal with their level of happiness at school and at home. This will be an in-depth conversation that also touches on your child’s health, because sometimes the underlying cause of depression is an undiagnosed health issue, like a thyroid that isn’t functioning properly. If the doctor has questions regarding your child’s underlying health, they might order lab work to check things like thyroid and blood count. This process will likely work better if your child is talking to a physician they have a relationship with, because honest answers will be necessary to diagnose any underlying mental or physical condition.


After Screening: What You Should Expect

If your physician determines that your child is suffering from a form of depression, they’ll need to dig further to help pinpoint the type of disorder. Here are some of the symptoms they’ll be looking for following the initial screening: 

  •  Melancholic features: This is what most people probably picture when they think of depression. It is characterized by severe depression with a lack of response to things that used to make that person happy. There will likely be changes in appetite, sluggishness, agitation and feelings of guilt.
  •  Atypical features: This type of depression includes the ability to be cheered up temporarily. It is marked with periodic increases in appetite, the excessive need for sleep, sensitivity to rejection and a heavy feeling in the arms or legs.
  •  Anxious distress: This features an unrelenting anxiety about potential events that is characterized by a fear of the loss of control.


Not all depression is the same, and not all depressive symptoms point to general depression. In fact, after depression is detected, it is likely that further investigation will be needed. Your physician may recommend that you talk to someone who specializes in mood disorders. These are disorders that can cause depressive symptoms and include things like bipolar disorder, persistent depressive disorder, disruptive mood dysregulation disorder and cyclothymic disorder. There is no one definitive way to help correct depression or depressive disorders – your child likely will need to talk with someone experienced in child counseling to get to the root of their issue. 

While a depression or mood disorder diagnosis can seem frightening at first, understand that it’s not. All these diagnoses mean is that you’ll be able to start getting your child help before the problem becomes too big or too difficult for them to handle. And it means that you’re now involved in your child’s ongoing care and recovery. Showing care to a preteen or teen struggling with a depressive disorder is an excellent way to let them know they’re loved, and besides seeking professional help, that’s the best thing you as a parent can do.  


Dr. Jennifer Lai is a board-certified pediatrician at Kelsey-Seybold’s Spring Medical and Diagnostic Center. She’s accepting appointments for kids of all ages. Her clinical interests include general Pediatrics, newborns, autism, and obesity. 



Topics: depression in kids, adolescents and depression, teen depression, screening kids for depression

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