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Dysthymia

What is dysthymia?

Dysthymia, also known as dysthymic disorder, is classified as a type of affective disorder (also called mood disorder) that often resembles a less severe, yet more chronic form of major (clinical) depression. However, persons with dysthymia may also experience major depressive episodes at times.

Depression is a mood disorder that involves a child's body, mood, and thoughts. It can affect and disrupt eating, sleeping, or thinking patterns, and is not the same as being unhappy or in a "blue" mood, nor is it a sign of personal weakness or a condition that can be willed or wished away. Children with a depressive illness cannot merely "pull themselves together" and get better. Treatment is often necessary and many times crucial to recovery.

There are three primary types of depression, including:

  • major depression (clinical depression)
  • bipolar disorder (manic depression)
  • dysthymic disorder (dysthymia)

Who is affected by dysthymia?

Dysthymia occurs in up to 1.7 percent of children, and in up to 8 percent of adolescents.

What are the symptoms of dysthymia?

Although less severe, yet more chronic than major depression, the following are the most common symptoms of dysthymia. However, each child may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms may include:

  • persistent feelings of sadness
  • feeling hopeless or helpless
  • having low self-esteem
  • feeling inadequate
  • excessive guilt
  • feelings of wanting to die
  • loss of interest in usual activities
  • difficulty with relationships
  • sleep disturbances (i.e., insomnia, hypersomnia)
  • changes in appetite or weight
  • decreased energy
  • difficulty concentrating
  • a decrease in the ability to make decisions
  • suicidal thoughts or attempts
  • frequent physical complaints (i.e., headache, stomach ache, fatigue)
  • running away or threats of running away from home
  • hypersensitivity to failure or rejection
  • irritability, hostility, aggression

For a diagnosis of dysthymia to be made, a depressed or irritable mood must persist for at least one year in children or adolescents and must be accompanied by at least two other major depressive symptoms (noted above). The symptoms of dysthymia may resemble other medical problems or psychiatric conditions. Always consult your child's physician for a diagnosis.

How is dysthymia diagnosed?

Because depression has shown to often co-exist with other psychiatric disorders, such as substance abuse or anxiety disorders, seeking early diagnosis and treatment is crucial to the recovery of your child.

A child psychiatrist or other mental health professional usually diagnoses dysthymia following a comprehensive psychiatric evaluation. An evaluation of the child's family, when possible, in addition to information provided by teachers and care providers may also be helpful in making a diagnosis.

Treatment for dysthymia:

Specific treatment for dysthymia will be determined by your child's physician based on:

  • your child's age, overall health, and medical history
  • extent of your child's symptoms
  • your child's tolerance for specific medications or therapies
  • expectations for the course of the condition
  • your opinion or preference

Mood disorders, including dysthymic disorder, can often be effectively treated. Treatment should always be based on a comprehensive evaluation of the child and family. Treatment may include one, or more, of the following:

  • antidepressant medications (especially when combined with psychotherapy has shown to be very effective in the treatment of depression in children and teens)
  • psychotherapy (most often cognitive-behavioral and/or interpersonal therapy) for the child (focused on changing the child's distorted views of themselves and the environment around them; working through difficult relationships; identifying stressors in the child's environment and learning how to avoid them)
  • family therapy
  • consultation with the child's school

Parents play a vital supportive role in any treatment process.

Dysthymia is associated with an increased risk for major depression if a child or adolescent does not receive appropriate treatment. Dysthymia also increases the risk for a child or adolescent to develop other mental health disorders. Appropriate treatment helps to reduce the severity of symptoms and the risk for relapse of a depressive episode.

Because episodes of dysthymia may last for longer than five years, long-term, continued treatment may help to prevent reoccurrence of the depressive symptoms.

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