Treatment of Depression in Children and Adolescents: A Systematic Review

Viswanathan M, Kennedy SM, McKeeman J, Christian R, Coker-Schwimmer M, Cook Middleton J, Bann C, Lux L, Randolph C, Forman-Hoffman V. Treatment of Depression in Children and Adolescents: A Systematic Review. Comparative Effectiveness Review No. 224. (Prepared by the RTI International–University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Evidence-based Practice Center under Contract No. 290-2015-00011-I.) AHRQ Publication No. 20-EHC005-EF. Rockville, MD: Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality; April 2020.



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Depressive disorders can affect long-term mental and physical health functioning among children and adolescents, including increased risk of suicide. Despite access to several nonpharmacological, pharmacological, and combined treatment options for childhood depression, clinicians contend with sparse evidence and are concerned about harms associated with treatment.


We conducted a systematic review to evaluate the efficacy, comparative effectiveness, and moderators of benefits and harms of available nonpharmacological and pharmacological treatments for children and adolescents with a confirmed diagnosis of a depressive disorder (DD)—major depressive disorder (MDD), persistent depressive disorder (previously termed dysthymia) or DD not otherwise specified. We searched five databases and other sources for evidence available from inception to May 29, 2019, dually screened the results, and analyzed eligible studies.


We included in our analyses data from 60 studies (94 articles) that met our review eligibility criteria. For adolescents (study participants’ ages range from 12 to 18 years) with MDD, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), fluoxetine, escitalopram, and combined fluoxetine and CBT may improve depressive symptoms (1 randomized controlled trial [RCT] each, n ranges from 212 to 311); whether the magnitude of improvement is clinically significant is unclear. Among adolescents or children with MDD, CBT plus medications (8–17 years) may be associated with lower rates of relapse (1 RCT [n = 121]). In the same population (6–17 years), selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) may be associated with improved response (7 RCTs [n = 1,525]; risk difference [RD], 72/1,000 [95% confidence interval (CI), 2 to 24], I2 = 9%) and functional status (5 RCTs [n = 941]; standardized mean difference, 0.16 [95% CI, 0.03 to 0.29]; I2 = 0%). For adolescents or children with any DD (7–18 years), CBT or family therapy may be associated with improvements in symptoms, response, or functional status (1 RCT each, n ranges from 64 to 99). Among children with any DD (7–12 years), family-based interpersonal therapy may be associated with improved symptoms (1 RCT, n = 38). Psychotherapy trials did not report harms. SSRIs may be associated with a higher risk of serious adverse events among adolescents or children with MDD (7–18 years; 9 RCTs [n = 2,206]; RD, 20/1,000 [95% CI, 1 to 440]; I2, 4%) and with a higher risk of withdrawal due to adverse events among adolescents with MDD (12–18 years; 4 RCTs [n = 1,296], RD, 26/1,000 [95% CI, 6 to 45]; I2, 0%). Paroxetine (1 RCT [n = 180]) may be associated with a higher risk of suicidal ideation or behaviors among adolescents with MDD (12–18 years). Evidence was insufficient to judge the risk of suicidal ideation or behavior for other SSRIs for adolescents and children with MDD or other DD (7–18 years) (10 RCTs [n = 2,368]; relative risk, 1.14 [95% CI, 0.89 to 1.45]; I2, 8%). However, this report excluded data on inpatients and those without depressive disorders, whom the Food and Drug Administration included in finding an increased risk of suicidality for all antidepressants across all indications.


Efficacious treatments exist for adolescents with MDD. SSRIs may be associated with increased withdrawal and serious adverse events. No evidence on harms of psychotherapy were identified.