Relapse Common for Teens Who Overcome Depression

About half of teens who appear to have recovered from depression face a relapse within five years, according to a newly released study.

Girls were more likely than boys to see the condition return, and those teens who also suffered anxiety were more likely than anxiety-free teens to relapse, the researchers said.

The findings underscore the high risk of depression recurrence for teenagers. Earlier studies that had followed depressed teens for two years after their recovery indicated a recurrence rate of about 30 percent, said study researcher John Curry, of Duke University Medical Center.

The new study suggests the need for better treatments, and perhaps "booster" treatment sessions, for preventing depression's return.

"Evidently, we don’t have treatments that totally prevent reoccurrence. They may reduce it, but they don’t totally prevent it, by any means," Curry said. "It would probably be helpful for teenagers and parents to learn how to monitor when symptoms are starting to come up again, so they can resume treatment at that point."

Major depression

The study involved 196 adolescents, 110 of them female, who had been diagnosed with major depressive disorder. Symptoms of this condition include depressed mood, feelings of worthlessness, loss of interest in activities that were previously enjoyed, changes in appetite, sleep disturbances, difficulty concentrating, lack of energy and thoughts of suicide. Five of these symptoms must be present and persist over time for a teen to be diagnosed with major depression.

The participating teens had taken part in a previous study that looked at the effects of depression treatments given over a 12-week period. During those 12 weeks, the participants had been given an antidepressant, psychotherapy, a combination of both, or a placebo.

The new study followed subjects for five years afterward. By the end of the five years, almost all the participants — 189 people, or 96.4 percent — had experienced a recovery from their depression at some point. In fact, most of them recovered within two years. Subjects were considered recovered if their symptoms ceased for at least eight weeks.

However, 88 of the 189 recovered teens, or 47 percent, also saw their depression return. On average, it took two years for the symptoms to re-emerge. More than half of the female participants, 57 percent, experienced a relapse, compared with 32.9 percent of males.

The type of treatment patients initially received did not affect how likely they were to recover, or whether they experienced a relapse, the researchers found.

Some good news

Despite the high reoccurrence rate, Curry noted that nearly all the participants recovered after two years, which is "very good news,"  he said."I think clinicians can convey that kind of hopeful message to teenagers and their parents," he said.

More research is needed to determine why females are more likely to experience depression recurrence. It could be that girls experience more events that can trigger their depression, or that they cope with stress differently than males do, Curry said.

The results are published today (Nov. 1) in the journal Archives of General Psychiatry.

This story was provided by MyHealthNewsDaily, a sister site to LiveScience.

Rachael Rettner

Rachael is a Live Science contributor, and was a former channel editor and senior writer for Live Science between 2010 and 2022. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.