Q: Is there such a thing as “childhood depression”?
Yes, children can definitely experience clinical depression. In fact, studies have found as many as one in 33 children and one in eight adolescents may be experiencing clinical depression. Seven to 14 percent of children will experience significant depression by the age of 15. Once a child has experienced depression, he or she is at risk of suffering again from depression within the next five years. Additionally, the rate of suicide for 5 to 24 year olds has nearly tripled from 1960, making suicide the leading cause of death among college age youth.
What are some signs of childhood depression?
Depression is an emotional disorder that affects the whole person, influencing the way a person thinks, feels and acts. Depression in children is not always obvious, but there are important signs and symptoms including:
- increased irritability or agitation
- excessive feelings of worthlessness
- persistent sadness and hopelessness
- withdrawal from friends or a shift to a peer group that is less acceptable
- changes in eating and sleeping habits
- withdrawal from activities once enjoyed
- lack of enthusiasm, low energy or low motivation
- missed school or poor school performance
- indecision, lack of concentration or forgetfulness
- frequent physical complaints
- drug and/or alcohol abuse
- increased interest in morbid topics and recurring thoughts of death or suicide.
Often in children, as compared to adults, others are more likely to see behavioral disturbances and expressions of anger, especially in boys who are socially taught anger is more acceptable than sadness. In fact, children labeled as “bad” may be suffering from depression. For example, studies have shown four of five children who run away suffer from depression.
How can parents help?
If you suspect a problem with depression:
- Be aware of behaviors which concern you and how long they have been occurring, how often, and how severe they seem.
- Talk to your child to keep the lines of communication open so they may share their concerns.
- See a mental health professional or physician who specializes in treating children and adolescents for evaluation and diagnosis.
- Get accurate information from libraries and well-researched websites including KidsHealth and National Institute of Mental Health
- Ask questions about treatment and services.
- Talk to other families in the community or find a family network organization to help.
Early diagnosis and treatment are essential for children with depression. Depression is one of the most treatable forms of mental illness as long as help is sought out. With help, children and adolescents can avoid major setbacks and further difficulties.
If you have concerns about a child, please contact the Psychology Department at Children’s Hospital. An evaluation can be scheduled by calling Patient Services at (804) 228-5818.
Written by Donna Purcell, PsyD, Licensed Clinical Psychologist. Reviewed and updated by Josie Castaldi, PhD, Licensed Clinical Psychologist, November 2007.
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