Understanding Depression and Comorbidity in Children and Teens

ID-100105042This is Part Four in our Winter 2013 blog series Understanding Depression in Kids and Teens…A Primer for Pastors, Church Staff and Christian Parents. Today, we’ll look at the phenomena we refer to as “comorbidity”… the propensity for other mental health disorders to be present concomitantly with depression.

Children and youth who meet criteria for a full-fledged episode of Major Depression are especially prone to comorbid mental health disorders. Depending upon the practice setting, as many as 90% of kids with depression have at least one comorbid condition, while 50% experience two or more conditions.

In my practice setting, the vast majority of kids seen with depression typically present with a history of pre-existing anxiety disorders, especially Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and Generalized Anxiety Disorder. By some estimates, as many as 75% of kids seen in research settings for OCD will develop at least one episode of Major Depression by the time they turn 18. One might speculate that the unrelenting, intrusive thoughts experienced by kids who obsess may predispose, precipitate or perpetuate to depressive symptoms. Statistically speaking, anxiety disorders are the most common comorbid condition seen among kids with depression. Children with depression commonly experience symptoms of separation anxiety concurrently with depression…social anxiety and generalized anxiety are more common in teens.

Sad boyThere was considerable debate leading up to the DSM-5 about the relationship between anxiety and depression. Here’s a link to a summary of the debate at an NIH-sponsored conference on the topic. Most of those present took the view that the two disorders are closely related, and took the view that the differences between the two were relatively trivial, and might be accounted for by the different time durations required for each. Later in this series, we’ll review data suggesting that commonly used antidepressants are far more effective treatments for anxiety in children and teens than they are for depression.

Next on the list of comorbid conditions seen in depression are disruptive behavior disorders…ADHD, Oppositional Defiant Disorder and Conduct Disorder. I typically make a point of screening every kid I see in whom I suspect depression for ADHD. In our practice, we commonly experience kids coming to us with a well-defined episode of depression (often in high school) preceded by a fairly long history of functional impairment consistent with undiagnosed and untreated ADHD. It’s not hard to imagine that kids with a long history of the academic, social and family difficulties associated with ADHD would be predisposed to issues with depression. It’s important to note that kids with depression may experience many difficulties associated with ADHD (poor attention, concentration, low motivation, agitation and difficulties with task completion) as symptoms of the depression itself…we don’t consider them to have a comorbid condition. It’s when the symptoms of ADHD predate the symptoms of depression that we consider the possibility that two conditions are present. These situations are often very complex, and are the types of situations (IMHO) that are best left for those of us who specialize in child and adolescent psychiatry.

Finally, self-medication with drugs or alcohol is a common phenomena among youth with depression. Again, teasing out the direct effects of substances upon mood from a pre-existing mood disorder can be quite challenging. Experts will often find themselves unable to make the distinction until the youth has experienced a extended period of abstinence from substances.

In general, most comorbid conditions seen in kids with depression emerge prior to the onset of depressive symptoms, while substance abuse issues frequently occur after the emergence of depression…presumably from attempts to “self-medicate” through illicit substance use.

Here’s a summary slide listing some of the most important concepts related to other mental health conditions that frequently occur concomitantly with depression…


Photos courtesy of  freedigitalphotos.net

An outstanding resource for church staff and volunteers is the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry’s Depression Resource Center. The center includes answers to frequently asked questions, downloads for families, a video presentation from Dr. Graham Emslie (one of the world’s leading experts in pediatric depression) as well as clinical resources, rating scales and scientific information.


Key Ministry’s mission is to help churches reach families affected by disability by providing FREE resources to pastors, volunteers, and individuals who wish to create an inclusive ministry environment. We have designed our Key Catalog to create fun opportunities for our ministry supporters to join in our mission through supporting a variety of gift options. Click here to check it out! For a sixty second summary of what Key Ministry does, watch the video below…

About Dr. G

Dr. Stephen Grcevich serves as President and Founder of Key Ministry, a non-profit organization providing free training, consultation, resources and support to help churches serve families of children with disabilities. Dr. Grcevich is a graduate of Northeastern Ohio Medical University (NEOMED), trained in General Psychiatry at the Cleveland Clinic Foundation and in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at University Hospitals of Cleveland/Case Western Reserve University. He is a faculty member in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at two medical schools, leads a group practice in suburban Cleveland (Family Center by the Falls), and continues to be involved in research evaluating the safety and effectiveness of medications prescribed to children for ADHD, anxiety and depression. He is a past recipient of the Exemplary Psychiatrist Award from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). Dr. Grcevich was recently recognized by Sharecare as one of the top ten online influencers in children’s mental health. His blog for Key Ministry, www.church4everychild.org was ranked fourth among the top 100 children's ministry blogs in 2015 by Ministry to Children.
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