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Overview of Mood Disorders

What are mood disorders?

A category of mental health problems that includes all types of depression and bipolar disorder, mood disorders are sometimes called affective disorders.

During the 1980s, mental health professionals began to recognize symptoms of mood disorders in children and adolescents, as well as adults. However, children and adolescents do not necessarily experience or exhibit the same symptoms as adults. It is more difficult to diagnose mood disorders in children, especially because children are not always able to express how they feel. Today, clinicians and researchers believe that mood disorders in children and adolescents remain one of the most under-diagnosed mental health problems. Mood disorders in children also put them at risk for other conditions (most often anxiety disorder, disruptive behavior, and substance abuse disorders) that may persist long after the initial episodes of depression are resolved.

What causes mood disorders?

What causes mood disorders in children is not well known. There are chemicals in the brain that are responsible for positive moods. Other chemicals in the brain, called neurotransmitters, regulate the brain chemicals that affect mood. Most likely, depression (and other mood disorders) is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain. Life events (such as unwanted changes in life) may also help cause this chemical imbalance.

Affective disorders aggregate in families and are considered to be multifactorially inherited. Multifactorial inheritance means that "many factors" are involved. The factors that produce the trait or condition are usually both genetic and environmental, involving a combination of genes from both parents. Often one gender (either males or females) is affected more frequently than the other in multifactorial traits. There appears to be a different threshold of expression, which means that one gender is more likely to show the problem, over the other gender.

Who is affected by mood disorders?

Anyone can feel sad or depressed at times. However, mood disorders are more intense and difficult to manage than normal feelings of sadness. Children, adolescents, or adults who have a parent with a mood disorder have a greater chance of also having a mood disorder. However, life events and stress can expose or exaggerate feelings of sadness or depression, making the feelings more difficult to manage.

Sometimes, life's problems can trigger depression. Being fired from a job, getting divorced, losing a loved one, death in the family, and financial trouble, to name a few, all can be difficult and coping with the pressure may be troublesome. These life events and stress can bring on feelings of sadness or depression or make a mood disorder harder to manage.

The chance for depression in females in the general population is nearly twice as high (12 percent) as it is for males (6.6 percent). Once a person in the family has this diagnosis, the chance for their siblings or children to have the same diagnosis is increased. In addition, relatives of persons with depression are also at increased risk for bipolar disorder (manic depression).

The chance for manic depression (or bipolar disorder) in males and females in the general population is about 2.6 percent. Once a person in the family has this diagnosis, the chance for their siblings or children to have the same diagnosis is increased. In addition, relatives of persons with manic depression are also at increased risk for depression.

What are the different types of mood disorders?

The following are the most common types of mood disorders experienced by children and adolescents:

  • major depression - a period of a depressed or irritable mood or a noticeable decrease in interest or pleasure in usual activities, along with other signs, lasting at least two weeks.
  • dysthymic disorder (dysthymia) - a chronic, low-grade, depressed or irritable mood for at least one year.
  • bipolar disorder (manic depression) - manic episodes (period of persistently elevated mood), usually interspersed with depressed periods.
  • mood disorder due to a general medical condition - many medical illnesses (including cancer, injuries, infections, and chronic medical illnesses) can trigger symptoms of depression.
  • substance induced mood disorder - symptoms of depression that are due to the effects of medication or other forms of treatment, drug abuse, or exposure to toxins.

What are the symptoms of mood disorders?

Children, depending upon their age and the type of mood disorder present, may exhibit different symptoms of depression. The following are the most common symptoms of a mood disorder. However, each child and adolescent 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 or activities once enjoyed
  • 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

In mood disorders, these feelings appear more intense than adolescents normally feel from time to time. It is also of concern if these feelings continue over a period of time, or interfere with an adolescent's interest in being with friends or taking part in daily activities at home or school. Any adolescent who expresses thoughts of suicide should be evaluated immediately.

Other signs of possible mood disorders in adolescents may include:

  • difficulty achieving in school
  • constant anger
  • rebellious behaviors
  • trouble with family
  • difficulty with friends and peers

The symptoms of mood disorders may resemble other conditions or psychiatric problems. Always consult your child's physician for a diagnosis.

How are mood disorders diagnosed?

Mood disorders are real medical conditions. They are not something a child will likely just "get over."

A child psychiatrist or other mental health professional usually diagnoses mood disorders 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 mood disorders:

Specific treatment for mood disorders 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
  • type of mood disorder
  • your child's tolerance for specific medications or therapies
  • expectations for the course of the condition
  • your opinion or preference

Mood disorders 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:

  • medications (especially when combined with psychotherapy has shown to be very effective in the treatment of mood disorders 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 how to avoid them)
  • family therapy
  • consultation with the child's school

Parents play a vital supportive role in any treatment process.

Prevention of mood disorders:

Preventive measures to reduce the incidence of mood disorders in children are not known at this time. However, early detection and intervention can reduce the severity of symptoms, enhance the child's normal growth and development, and improve the quality of life experienced by children with mood disorders.

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