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Study Finds Depression in Children as Young as 3

Depression in children as young as 3 is real and not just a passing grumpy mood, according to new research, the Associated Press reported in August.

Until fairly recently, "people really haven't paid much attention to depressive disorders in children under the age of 6," said lead author Dr. Joan Luby, a psychiatrist at Washington University in St. Louis. "They didn't think it could happen because children under 6 were too emotionally immature to experience it."

Previous research suggested that depression affects about 2 percent of U.S. preschoolers, or roughly 160,000 youngsters, at one time or another. But it was unclear whether depression in preschoolers could be chronic. Luby's research team followed more than 200 preschoolers, ages 3 to 6 for up to two years, including 75 diagnosed with major depression. The children had up to four mental health exams during the study.

Among initially depressed children, 64 percent were still depressed or had a recurrent episode of depression six months later, and 40 percent still had problems after two years. Overall, nearly 20 percent had persistent or recurrent depression at all four exams.
Depression was most common in children whose mothers were also depressed or had other mood disorders and among those who had experienced a traumatic event, such as the death of a parent or physical or sexual abuse.

The study, funded by the National Institute of Mental Health and released in the August issue of Archives of General Psychiatry, did not examine depression treatment, which is highly controversial among children so young. University of Massachusetts psychologist Lisa Cosgrove said she is skeptical about the accuracy of labeling preschoolers as depressed, because diagnostic tools for evaluating mental health in children so young aren't as well tested as those used for adults.

Dr. David Fassler, a University of Vermont psychiatry professor, stressed that depression in very young children is still pretty rare. However, without treatment, "it can have a devastating and often lasting effect on a child's social and emotional development," he said.

"Hopefully, studies such as this will help parents, teachers, and pediatricians recognize the signs and symptoms of preschool depression so they make sure young children get the help they need and deserve," Fassler said.

Read the full Associated Press article.

Read the full study (subscription or one-time access fee required) in Archives of General Psychiatry.