Depression is one of the major mental health issues in the US.
According to statistics collected by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and also by the World Health Organization, depression affects up to 25% of American adults over 18 years old.
It also affects around 2.5% of children.
While adults usually self-select for diagnosis and potential treatment of depression, children have historically been under-diagnosed, mainly because many adults are not yet very skilled at recognizing the signs of childhood depression. This may mean that the numbers could well be much higher among children.
Depression is different from sadness
Children experience the full range of human emotions. They have every right to be angry and sad when they are affected and upset by life events.
But when a child’s sadness lasts longer than everyone else’s in the family, the low mood doesn’t respond to parental communication, and the child can’t voice the cause of the sadness, you need to look out for additional signs of childhood depression.
Childhood depression often changes a child’s behavior, both at home and at school.
Outbreaks of anger, inability to focus, self-isolation from friends, changes in sleep patterns, loss of appetite, and mood swings that seem disconnected from events, can all be signs that need to be investigated further. Some children also develop recurrent physical symptoms that don’t respond to treatment.
A particularly important sign is the child’s performance at school, including a reluctance to actually go to school, and lack of adaptation to social peer networks.
If your child is suddenly becoming a loner, failing exams, or seems to have lost interest in activities they used to enjoy, he or she may be suffering from depression.
Since children cannot seek medical help themselves and since they might not understand what is happening to them, careful observation of changed behaviors and reports from teachers and other adults are important elements in identifying childhood depression.
What to do if you recognize the signs of childhood depression?
The first step is always to have a conversation with the child.
Ask them how they feel and what bothers them. Take their problems seriously and don’t dismiss their feelings. Small things can feel overwhelming for children, and many children also don’t exactly know how to put their experience into words.
Try to understand and, if possible, take care of issues that disturb the child.
Make them feel safe and loved. Creative activities can also help to both describe signs of depression and help a child to recover from it. Exercise and nutrition also play a role in childhood depression.
Like most mental health issues, childhood depression can be anywhere from mild to severe. Your child may recover quickly from a mild episode, but in some cases, depression can lead to suicidal thoughts, even in children. If a child ever expresses such thoughts, professional help should be sought immediately.
If your own efforts don’t make enough of a difference, then it may be time to seek professional help.
Find a mental health professional who is trained in working with children. Although there are no specific direct tests, the child psychologist, counselor, or child psychiatrist will be able to diagnose, through interviews, observation, and questionnaires, if your child is depressed. Observational input from the school and from other adults will also be taken into account.
Possible causes of childhood depression
Depression is caused by a combination of factors, including genetic disposition, family history, traumatic events (including some the parents may not know about), environmental issues, and even bullying or abuse.
Depression is a serious illness. But it is also very treatable.
Treatment of depression usually involves a combination of talking therapies and/or various forms of play, music and art therapy for children, teaching and practicing of coping and adaptation skills, and medication with anti-depressants. Although treatment is usually long term, it is also usually very successful and children can return to their former level of functioning and enjoyment of life.
It is important to look for and recognize the signs of childhood depression, so that treatment can begin. Too many children still remain undiagnosed and suffer unnecessarily.