Child Psychiatry Consult

An update on treatment of depression


Paul is 13-year-old male in seventh grade with a history of inattentive ADHD and a positive family history of depression and anxiety in his mother. He always has had a few friends, but recently they have not wanted to hang out with him; he feels like people are ignoring him. For the past 2 months, Paul’s mood has gotten very low. He feels sad and also bored because he is not enjoying anything anymore. He feels as though he is “a loser,” and as though nothing will ever get better. His grades have dropped. He has thoughts of wishing he were dead, although he has no specific plan and says he wouldn’t do it because he doesn’t want to hurt his parents. He is looking at his phone at night and gets to bed late, then doesn’t want to get up in the morning. He sleeps until noon on weekends. Appetite is increased. He doesn’t have energy to do things on the weekends.


Paul clearly meets diagnostic criteria for depression. He feels sad and has lost pleasure in activities he used to enjoy. He has negative, hopeless thoughts, and vague thoughts of death although no specific plans. He has vegetative signs of depression with increased appetite and sleep; he likely has worse concentration than usual, given that his grades have dropped. Energy is low.

Both medications and specific types of psychotherapy are effective for treating depression in adolescents.

Meta-analyses have demonstrated the efficacy of SSRIs (fluoxetine, sertraline, citalopram, escitalopram) as well as venlafaxine, mirtazapine, and nefazodone with small to very small effect sizes.1 A large placebo effect is seen in many of these studies, correlating with the number of study sites – a feature of many industry-sponsored studies.

John Walkup, MD, a leading researcher on both medication and psychotherapeutic interventions in children’s mood disorders, has pointed out that the quality of industry-sponsored studies (vs. National Institute of Mental Health–sponsored studies) is likely lower, with more pressure to get in large numbers of patients in a short period of time, less trained investigators leading to less clear-cut diagnoses, and other sources of bias.2 This raises the question of whether we should weight NIMH-sponsored studies more heavily in meta-analyses.

A second factor to consider is the risk of harm, and a significant issue here is the question of whether suicidal ideation is increased among those patients taking SSRIs. Meta-analyses from the late 2000s, which balanced the number needed to treat vs. the number needed to harm, judged that for children under age 13 years, fluoxetine was the only antidepressant that was worth the cost-benefit ratio. However, in the past several years there has been a major improvement in the assessment of suicidal ideation in the form of the Columbia Suicide Severity Rating Scale, a standardized method of assessing the presence and significance of suicidal thoughts and behaviors. Studies that have used this assessment have found no significant increase in suicidal ideation with SSRIs vs. placebo.

The takeaway here is that the SSRIs can work, with fluoxetine, sertraline, and escitalopram leading the evidence, and that with refinements of the assessment they do not appear to increase the risk of suicidal ideation.3 Of course, it remains important to discuss this issue with families.

A sad teen sits on a curb Flamingo_Photography/Getty Images

Psychotherapy is the other major treatment for depression. Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and Interpersonal therapy (IPT) for adolescents show effectiveness in teens.4 Recent meta-analyses have gotten stronger through the use of stringent quality criteria and the inclusion of negative studies; these therapies continue to be considered well established. It is worthwhile to talk to therapists in your community to understand what type of treatment they offer. If you are hiring therapists to be embedded in your practice, look for people who have been trained in CBT or IPT. It is particularly helpful to know whether therapists have seen patients using CBT or IPT while getting supervision in these modalities.

CBT and IPT are different. CBT puts an emphasis on the thought-feeling-behavior triangle while IPT focuses more on relationships. Someone who has tried one and has not benefited nevertheless may benefit from the other.

Working with your patients to choose what type of psychotherapy modality for depression they would like is particularly effective.

Finally, be aware of how the environment may be affecting your patient. School issues related to peers, learning style or disabilities, and organization have a major effect on teens. In this case, Paul is looking at his phone nightly, which may be affecting both his sleep and self-esteem. Family issues continue to play a key role.

Dr. Allison Y. Hall

Dr. Allison Y. Hall

Paul was referred for CBT therapy, which was moderately helpful. After a few months, sertraline was added with further improvement. A key element in fully resolving Paul’s depression was his becoming involved in the drama club, which gave him the chance to meet a group of peers who shared his interests.

Dr. Hall is assistant professor of psychiatry and pediatrics at the University of Vermont, Burlington. She said she had no relevant financial disclosures. Email her at


1. JAMA. 2007 Apr 18;297(15):1683-96.

2. Am J Psychiatry. 2017 May 1;174(5):430-7.

3. J Child Adolesc Psychopharmacol. 2018. doi: 10.1089/cap.2017.0174.

4. J Clin Child Adolesc Psychol. 2017 Jan-Feb;46(1):11-43.

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