Experts said modern childhoods had become increasingly stressful, with pressures from social media and cyber-bullying, school testing and rising family breakdowns among the factors fuelling rising mental health problems.
Recommendations from the National Institute of Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) say doctors and schools should be doing more to identify pupils suffering from depression, and to provide information that the youngest children can understand.
NICE says that 80,000 children in the UK are estimated to suffer from severe depression, including 8,000 below the age of 10.
Its guidance says children as young as five can suffer from the mental health condition, and that more needs to be done to identify such cases.
Experts who drew up the advice said that in the last decade, there has been a steep increase in the number of primary school children suffering signs of depression.
Dr Gemma Trainor, Nurse Consultant, Greater Manchester West Foundation Mental Health Trust, and member of the specialist committee which developed the guidance said: “I have over 30 years of direct clinical experience of children and young people presenting with symptoms of depression. In that time, there have been many changes and trends; over the past ten years, the increase of primary school-age children presenting with depression is a particularly worrying phenomena.”
Lucie Russell, director of campaigns for charity Young Minds, said: “Modern childhood has become really stressful: there are family breakdowns, increasing pressure from school with testing from a very early age, and then the really significant factor in recent years is social media.”
She said: “It used to be the case that while some children might have a hard time at school, they could go home and switch off. Now there isn’t that escape, children are on devices all the time.
“As well as the problems with cyberbullying, we have developed this culture where even young children are trying to create a brand, based on how they look - which can make girls especially feel very anxious - and about how many Facebook friends they have.”
Experts said that children suffering from depression often felt they did not fit in with others, and were likely to be more withdrawn, and find it difficult to make friends.
The condition can also have physical symptoms, such as feeling constantly tired, sleeping badly, having no appetite, and complaining of aches and pains.
The NHS standards are aimed at improving care and support for those between the age of five and 18.
Professor Gillian Leng, Deputy Chief Executive and Director of Health and Social Care at NICE said: “Depression in children and young people is more common than people might think and can be particularly distressing, both for the child or young person affected and their family. It is important there are clear steps in place to aid healthcare professionals involved in treating children and young people with depression, so that they can deliver the very best levels of care across the NHS.”
The NICE standards say quicker access to specialist services is required if children are assessed as suffering from severe depression and at risk of suicide.
Ricky Emanuel, Consultant Child and Adolescent Psychotherapist at the Royal Free Hospital, London, and a member of the specialist committee which developed the guidelines, said there were currently “huge variations” in the quality of care available, depending on where children lived.
Care and Support Minister Norman Lamb said: “Young people’s mental health is a priority for this Government and we have committed £54 million over four years into talking therapies specifically for children and young people through the Improving Access to Psychological Therapies programme.
By Laura Donnelly