Most of us like to think of childhood as a happy time, free from worry and responsibility. But research shows that children, not only adults, can suffer from depression. Sad things happen, people get sick and die, parents divorce. We try to shield our children from these troubles, but we can’t. Sometimes, painful life events can lead to depression. Other times, childhood depression related to biological factors seems to occur for no apparent reason.
Everyone gets depressed from time to time. This happens when we are frustrated, disappointed or sad about an event or loss in our lives. This feeling, which usually goes away quickly, is a normal reaction to the ups and downs of life. Like adults, children have a right to their moods, and you need not be too concerned if your child is “down” for a short period of time. When depression persists, however, it is defined as an illness. Approximately one in ten children age six to twelve suffers from a depressive illness and is unable to escape persistent feelings of sadness.
Depression can be a serious illness. It is estimated that as many as three to six million may suffer from depression at some point and may be at increased risk of many problems including running away, failing school, abusing drugs, etc. Depression can cause children to withdraw from others, become lethargic, and lose self-esteem. Their frustration, sadness, and hopelessness may turn into anger or hostility that can lead to aggressive or troublesome behaviors. Early diagnosis and treatment is therefore important with depression in children.
An adult may be able to say, “I feel depressed,” but a child may not recognize or understand why he or she feels sad, or be able to accurately describe how he or she feels. Children often lack the ability to verbalize their feelings. Instead, their behavior is an indication of how they feel. Children may mask or hide their depressive feelings with aggressive behaviors such as severe, recurrent temper tantrums. They may start spending more and more time alone. They may demonstrate no interest in activities that were once important to them. Other children may misbehave at home or school. Depressed children may also talk about or say they wish they were dead. Some may abuse alcohol or drugs in an attempt to feel better.
The following are some of the signs and symptoms of childhood depression that parents need to be aware of:
- Persistent sadness
- Loss of interest in activities once enjoyed
- Persistent boredom, low energy, fatigue, poor concentration
- Significant changes in eating and/or sleeping patterns
- Frequent complaints of physical ailments such as headaches and stomachaches
- Changes in levels of activity or irritability
- Recurring thoughts of death or suicide
- Low self-esteem
- Frequent absences from school or a sudden drop in school performance
- Volatile or unstable moods
- Aggression, refusal to cooperate, temper tantrums, antisocial behavior
- Use of alcohol or other drugs
Professional help should be considered if symptoms last more than a few weeks, or if the child becomes dangerous to himself or others. The first step in seeking treatment is undergoing a complete diagnostic evaluation. Children generally respond well to treatment. Psychotherapy helps the child learn to express his or her feelings and to develop coping skills to deal with his or her illness and environmental stresses. Researchers have found that some children respond to antidepressant medications. Medications may be used in combination with psychotherapy as part of a comprehensive treatment program.
Hope lies in learning more. The more you learn about childhood depression, the more you will understand its causes and the effective treatments available. By reaching out for assistance, you can recognize the signs and symptoms of childhood depression, and help your child lead a healthy, happy life.