Diagnosis and treatment of dysthymia
in children and adolescents

Nobile M, Cataldo G, Marino C, Molteni M.
Child Psychiatry Unit,
Scientific Institute 'Eugenio Medea',
Bosisio Parini (LC), Italy.
CNS Drugs. 2003;17(13):927-46


Dysthymic disorder is a chronic depressive condition occurring in 0.6-4.6% of children and 1.6-8.0% of adolescents. Although symptoms are less severe than those observed in major depression, childhood-onset dysthymic disorder is characterised by a persistent and long-term depressed or irritable mood (mean episode duration 3-4 years), a worse outcome than major depression and, frequently, comorbid disorders (in around 50% of patients). Long-lasting depressive symptoms seem responsible for long-term disabling consequences on social skill learning, psychosocial functioning and consequent professional life, probably contributing to a higher risk of relapse or development of major depression. Consistently, the first episode of major depression occurs 2-3 years after the onset of dysthymic disorder, suggesting that the latter is one of the gateways to recurrent mood disorders.The primary aims of treatment for dysthymic disorder should be to resolve depressive symptoms, reduce the risk of developing other mood disorders over time and strengthen psychosocial functioning, especially in children and adolescents, in order to prevent the potentially serious sequelae of this disorder. As children with dysthymia often have multiple problems, interventions should involve multiple levels and measures: individual psychotherapy, family therapy/education and pharmacological treatment.Psychotherapeutic techniques, such as cognitive-behaviour therapy and interpersonal therapy, have been found to be efficacious interventions in treating children and adolescents with mild to moderate depression in studies including patients with either dysthmia or double depression.SSRIs are the first-line drug treatment for children and adolescents because of their safety, adverse effect profile and ease of use (the safety of paroxetine is currently under investigation). Several nonblind studies have shown the efficacy and good tolerability of SSRIs in children and adolescents with dysthymic disorder, but further research is needed to confirm their efficacy and that of newer antidepressants in the treatment of this disorder.Regardless of whether psychotherapeutic or medical treatments are planned, according to clinical experience, psychoeducational interventions and psychosocial support should be provided to parents and other caregivers during the acute treatment phase to help manage the child's irritable mood and foster a therapeutic alliance and better compliance with treatment.Unfortunately, no studies have focused on continuation treatment of paediatric dysthymic disorder. Given the chronicity, recurrence, psychosocial consequences and peculiar response pattern to treatment of dysthymic disorder, establishing effective 'acute' and 'continuation' interventions in this group of patients should be a priority in mental health management.
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