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Encephale. 2002 May-Jun;28(3 Pt 1):234-40.

[Vulnerability to depression in children and adolescents: update and perspectives].

[Article in French]

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  • 1CCA, Service de Psychopathologie de l'Enfant et de l'Adolescent, Hôpital Robert Debré, 75019 Paris, France.


Depression in children and adolescents is associated with poor psychosocial functioning, high psychiatric comorbidity, risk of recurrent episodes or onset of bipolar disorder. These findings emphasize the importance of early identification of children and adolescents having elevated risk for future depression and further development, evaluation and greater availability of prevention strategies. Our review aims an update about depressive vulnerability in children and adolescents in the perspective of better identification of at-risk populations and targeting of prevention programs. Psychopathology, in particular anxiety and disruptive disorders are well identified risk-factors for later depression. Subclinical depressive symptomatology, also termed "demoralization", also identifies high-risk populations, likely to become incident cases of depression. It is still unclear whether this condition is prodromal depression, a specific clinical entity or the expression of biological and/or cognitive vulnerability. Familial risk for depressive disorders involves both genetic and psychosocial factors. Marital discord, poor communication and dysfunctional parenting practices are often present in families with affective disorders and can be implicated in increased depressive vulnerability in the offspring. Research on individual vulnerability in children and adolescents has focused on temperamental and cognitive characteristics. Temperament traits describe individual differences in reactivity and behavior. High emotionality, defined as the tendency to become upset easily and intensely has been associated with an increased risk for subsequent major depression. However, as the majority of high scorers will not become depressive cases, emotionality should not be the only criterion for selection of at-risk populations. Cognitive style including poor self esteem, low social competence and negative attributions are also associated with increased likelihood of depressive symptoms, but their predictive value for the onset of clinical depressive episodes needs further investigation. Familial and individual vulnerability is likely to heighten the depressogenic impact of life events and psycho-social adversity. Prevention interventions have been developed in the United States for children and adolescents at-risk for depression. In France, clinicians witness growing demands from families with affective illness concerned with risk of parent-child transmission of depressive vulnerability, prevention and early identification of symptoms. To meet this kind of emerging needs and to prevent family dysfunction, a preventive program targets offspring of depressed parents and uses clinician-based family approaches. Family and individual sessions aim a better understanding of illness experience and encourage the parents to identify and foster resilience in their children. Another type of preventive intervention focuses on children and adolescents with subclinical depressive symptoms, eventually associated with behavioral problems ou high level of parental conflict, recruited in school settings. These school-based interventions combine cognitive and social problem-solving techniques. Both familial and school-based preventive interventions have proven applicable and promising in high-risk children and adolescents. Perspectives are more systematic identification of risk groups, including youngsters with past or current non affective symptoms who might benefit from depression prevention, long-term evaluation and cross-cultural applications of prevention programs.

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