Up until a few decades ago depression and other mental illnesses were almost unheard of in children. And the few cases that did exist were often overlooked. Many paediatricians believed that it was impossible for children to develop these types of disorders as they hadn’t yet reached psychological and cognitive maturity.
Over the last few years however, we have finally begun to realise that minors (and even very young children) can be affected by depression. In fact, due to a variety of factors (like bullying, the pressure associated with body image and the increase in sedentary and solitary forms of entertainment), childhood depression has become increasing common.
What to look out for...
There are several ways to distinguish between normal childhood mood swings and the start of a more serious problem. The most easily recognisable signs pointing to childhood depression include prolonged periods of feeling low accompanied by crying and severe irritability, generally brought on without any apparent motive.
You should be particularly concerned when your child’s emotional state affects their daily routine. This can be reflected in poor performance at school, a lack of interest in things they used to enjoy or an increasing tendency to shut themselves away from other children.
Changes to eating habits and sleep pattern, difficulty concentrating and constantly being tired, lethargic or bored can also be indicative of depression. If you notice your child is starting to display any of these symptoms, don’t hesitate in contacting your GP.
You should also keep an eye out for prolonged or extreme reactions to traumatic events (such as the death of a loved one) as this can also be a sign of depression.
Who is affected?
Several studies have shown that if one of the parents has had clinical depression there is a 25% risk the child will experience a depressive episode. The risk is tripled when both parents have been affected. Doctors are unsure as to the exact cause, but they believe it has to do with a genetic predisposition that manifests when the person is exposed to unfavourable environmental circumstances.
Unfortunately children and teenagers with depression often develop other associated mental disorders. Statistics show that around 40% develop some kind of anxiety disorder (obsessive-compulsive disorder, for example). In addition, one in every four children with depression has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The fact that the two disorders manifest at the same time doesn’t necessarily mean they’re related, but it does make correctly identifying the problem difficult, as many of the symptoms coincide.
Childhood depression can sometimes be a reaction to environmental stress such as pressure to do well in exams and extracurricular activities, social networking and cyberbullying. The body image portrayed in the media can also affect a child’s emotional state, leading them to become depressed. This is especially true for girls.
Other risk factors include low self-esteem, poor body image and certain personality traits. Children with depression tend to be overly self-critical, often feeling powerless to change their circumstances. Some studies indicate (although the theory does meet with certain opposition) that obese children are more susceptible to childhood depression.
What to do?
Parents and teachers often find dealing with childhood depression particularly challenging. The first step is to talk things through with the child in question. Try to get them to explain what it is that’s worrying them. When chatting to them it’s vitally important you don’t downplay what they tell you. While the issue may seem trivial from an adult’s perspective it’s no doubt hugely important to them. If you’re worried because there doesn’t seem to be any improvement despite having talked things through, you should make an appointment for them to see their doctor.
If the doctor decides that they need treatment there are several options available. These include help from social workers, family therapy sessions and cognitive behavioural therapy sessions with a child psychologist.
On occasions the specialist may feel it’s necessary to prescribe some kind of antidepressant. These have been proven to be completely safe and highly effective in low doses. That being said, the use of medication to treat childhood depression is still not widespread and is generally reserved for more serious cases.
Author: Purificación Salgado, Journalist
Last Modification: November 4, 2016
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