Child Psychiatry Consult

Sensitive gray matters in treating teen depression


Carla is an otherwise-healthy 14-year-old female followed by her pediatrician for symptoms of depression and anxiety that have worsened over the past 8 months. Anhedonia, irritability, poor concentration, fatigue, hypersomnolence, and significant weight gain have increasingly led to further dysphoria, social isolation, and obsessive rumination, all of which now contribute to more dysfunction in both her home and school life. Based on Carla’s apprehension over “taking pills,” she was referred for outpatient therapy 5 months ago but because of difficulty maintaining weekly appointments, she stopped attending after 6 weeks, citing difficulty aligning with her therapist.

Carla was seen in an urgent, unscheduled follow-up appointment 2 months prior to address increased thoughts of wishing to be dead. She had neither a plan nor a desire to act on these ideations. During an interview, she was distant with poor eye contact, and her affect was notably blunted. Her mother, who had accompanied her in the waiting room, expressed frustration to the nurse about discovering that Carla was using cannabis, that she often appeared aloof and unmotivated to do much of anything but “sit in her room and play on her phone for hours on end.” She compared Carla with her ex-husband, who had similar mood swings that often led to erratic and violent outbursts towards Carla and her mother, behaviors that ultimately led them to leave him when Carla was 6 years old.

After a discussion over the risks and benefits of various treatment options, Carla was started on low-dose fluoxetine with a plan to titrate the medication after 2 weeks. A referral for outpatient substance use treatment also was initiated. Carla’s mother telephoned 10 days later in an update that things have drastically improved in Carla’s mood and activity. The following week her mother called back again with concerns that Carla is no longer sleeping, appears restless, impulsive, and disinhibited.


Carla’s initial presentation is common to primary care settings. Based on her earliest reported symptoms, she would qualify for a diagnosis of major depression. Decisions regarding initial treatment for children and adolescents must take into account the severity of symptoms, risks, autonomy of the patient and family, as well as available evidence. Her response to outpatient therapy is not an anomaly. With an ever-increasing demand on mental health services, the availability of consistent, quality outpatient therapy for this population is not always easy to secure.1,2 Combining targeted therapy with pharmacologic interventions for major depression appear to have the most effective outcomes.3

Carla’s progression also illustrates the challenges and potential pitfalls of attempting to understand and address her symptoms according to a single nosology. Depression is a like a fever. It can be caused by a myriad of factors and, left to linger, may lead to further residual complications. Focusing attention to her symptoms also may lead to a differential including adjustment problems, social anxiety, effects of trauma, surreptitious substance use, or even bipolar depression. Understanding Carla’s (or anyone else’s) unique predispositions to illness will better optimize the course of treatment.

To begin with, a clear delineation of Carla’s historic symptoms and any possible medical contributions to her presentation are necessary to investigate. Specific inquiries into past episodes of activation including hyperarousal, impulsivity, restlessness, and insomnia should be elucidated prior to consideration of medication selection.4 Considering Carla’s age and the known association between antidepressant-induced manic conversion among children aged 10-14 years,5 any pharmacologic intervention will benefit from the maxim “start low and go slow.” Her symptoms of activation arise within the setting of titration of an antidepressant. This may raise considerations to her specific metabolism and physiological concentrations of the medication as well as cumulative day exposure.

Complementary to Carla’s own history is that of family members. Often obtaining a reliable family psychiatric history is an exercise fraught with bias, vagueness, and generalizations.6 However, given the known heritability of bipolar disorders and the implications for treating depression in such individuals, compared with unipolar depressive symptoms, clarifying the nature of family illness may elucidate potential susceptibilities previously unconsidered.7 In this case, descriptions of Carla’s father’s behavior raise concerns for underlying bipolar disorder, as do the accounts of traumatic stress exposure and their compounded preponderance for increased suicide risk.8

Unfortunately, Carla’s current environmental cues and maladaptive behaviors may be perpetuating her symptoms and possibly placing her on a trajectory for further illness. Exploration of her relationship with her caregivers regarding the interpretation of her symptoms, and need for treatment should be undertaken so as to expand supportive roles. Education regarding cannabis use among adolescents and age-specific risks for later depression, anxiety, and suicide is warranted in a climate when accessibility is on the rise.9 Whether or not cannabis use itself leads to amotivation is the subject of current debate.10 A growing body of evidence is clearly illustrating that Carla’s sedentary behaviors and perceived loneliness likely exacerbate her mental well-being. Such patterns indicate the need for environmental intervention to change such cycles.

Finally, Carla’s progression through treatment speak to the need for open and honest discussions regarding realistic benefits as well potential risks. Progressive symptoms of depression left untreated can be life-threatening themselves, just as effects of activation as described in the vignette above can easily and quickly progress into situations that pose safety concerns. Amidst such periods of intervention, close communication and follow up with patients and their supports ameliorate potential adverse events and lead to better outcomes.


Carla’s mother was advised to discontinue the medication, closely monitor Carla’s behavior and sleep, and schedule an emergent follow-up appointment for the next day. A safety plan indicating circumstances in which Carla would require closer medical supervision for safety was reviewed with her mother. Carla was later initiated on lamotrigine and restarted interpersonal therapy.


1. N Engl J Med. 2015 May 21;372(21):2029-38.

2. J Pediatr. 2010 Nov;157(5):848-51.

3. Arch Gen Psychiatry. 2007 Oct;64(10):1132-43.

4. Curr Probl Pediatr Adolesc Health Care. 2018 Feb;48(2):50-62.

5. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med. 2004 Aug;158(8):773-80.

6. Can J Psychiatry. 1993 Nov;38(9):590-4.

7. Appl Clin Genet. 2014 Feb 12;7:33-42.

8. J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 2017 Dec;56(12):1073-1080.

9. JAMA Psychiatry. 2019;76(4):426-34.

10. Subst Use Misuse. 2018 Jun 7;53(7):1158-69.

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