Adolescent Depression Screening Guidelines

Depression in children and teens is not rare, and research shows that only half of adolescents with depression are diagnosed before adulthood. Taking this into account, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has issued new guidelines for diagnosing, managing and treating depression in adolescents (encompassing children, preteens and young adults ages 10 to 21 who are developmentally adolescent). 

The new AAP Guidelines

In summary, the new AAP guidelines recommend: 

  • Adolescents 12 years of age and older be screened for depression once a year
  • Pediatricians evaluate for depression in adolescents who list emotional problems as their primary complaint
  • Pediatricians educate both families and patients about depression and treatment options
  • A depression diagnosis includes interviews with patients as well as their families or caregivers
  • Pediatricians create a system of care by connecting patients with mental health resources in their community 
  • Pediatricians create a safety plan in case patients intend to harm themselves or others

With the understanding that depression can be devastating for teens, the AAP is pushing parents, teachers and other concerned members of the community to work together to ensure that adolescents get the help they need.  

Common symptoms of depression in adolescents 

The AAP’s new guidelines emphasize the importance of recognizing the symptoms of depression so that parents, teachers and other concerned adults can monitor adolescents and know when to seek help. 

  • Frequent vague, nonspecific physical complaints such as headaches, muscle aches, stomach aches or tiredness
  • Not wanting to go to school, which can lead to frequent absences and poor performance
  • Pretending to be sick
  • Outbursts of shouting, complaining or crying
  • Boredom
  • Difficulty with relationships, including social isolation or poor communication
  • Alcohol or substance abuse
  • Clinging to parent
  • Extreme sensitivity to rejection or failure
  • Reckless behavior
  • Fear of death
  • Alcohol or substance abuse
  • Recurrent thoughts of death or suicide

Not every depressed child will experience every symptom, and the severity of symptoms will vary from child to child. If your child is showing any of these signs and symptoms, talk with your child's doctor. 

Getting help 

Depression and other mood disorders can get better with the right attention and care. But problems also can continue or get worse if they're not treated.

If you think your child might be depressed or has a problem with moods:

  • Talk with your child about depression and moods. Kids might ignore, hide or deny how they feel. Or they might not realize that they're depressed. Listen, offer your support and show love. 
  • Schedule a visit to your child's pediatrician. If the doctor thinks your child has depression, or a similar mood disorder, he or she may refer you to a specialist for evaluation and treatment.

Contact a mental health specialist. Depression can get better. But without help, it can last or get worse. A child or adolescent psychiatrist or psychologist can evaluate your child and recommend treatment.