The Reality of Childhood Depression

Dear Mr. Dad: Over the past several months, our 12-year-old son has become increasingly moody, sad, and withdrawn. He has no friends and no interest in school or any other activities. When we ask him what’s wrong, he tells us to leave him alone and says that he doesn’t care what anyone thinks. Is it possible for a child this age to have depression?

A: Absolutely. For some reason I’ve never understood, a lot of people think that childhood depression is a myth (“oh, come on, what do kids have to be depressed about?”) As a result, too many parents, teachers, and other adults ignore (or rationalize away) behaviors like the ones your son is exhibiting. I’m glad you’re paying attention.
The truth is that childhood depression is a reality. According to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, about five percent of children and adolescents in the general population suffer from depression at any given point in time. And a recent study of 9- to 17-year-olds sponsored by National Institute of Mental Health, estimates that the prevalence of any kind of depression is more than 6 percent, while 4.9 percent suffering from major depression.

Kids who have been through puberty, have experienced stress, loss (such as death in the family), trauma (such as abuse), or those with ADD, learning or behavior issues, or anxiety are at even higher risk.
The big question is, How do you know whether a child or teen is depressed? Only a health care professional can make a clinical diagnosis, but the following symptoms should certainly raise red flags:

  • Problems as at school, at home, or with peers
  • Changes in appetite or sleep, always being tired
  • Social withdrawal or anxiety toward things your child normally is not afraid of
  • Regressing to behaviors more common in younger children, such as bed-wetting
  • Persistent sadness or tearfulness
  • Signs of self-destructive behavior, such as head-banging, or a lot of unexplained bruises, cuts, or injuries
  • Repeated talk of death.

Obviously, not every sulky child is suffering from depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, or any other serious mental illness. Many pre-teens and teenagers are notoriously moody, aggressive and unruly – behaviors that may be caused by hormonal changes and peer pressure rather than depression. Also, certain physical conditions, such as thyroid dysfunction and anemia can cause depressive symptoms like tiredness.

One thing that makes childhood depression more difficult to spot than adult depression is that children generally deny that there’s a problem (although plenty of adults do this too). Unfortunately, because signs of depressive disorders are often viewed by family and health care professionals as “normal” for a particular developmental phase, far too many youngsters don’t get the timely treatment they need. (That’s a real tragedy, since so many treatment options are available.) Untreated depression increases children’s risk of developing more serious mental health issues, substance abuse, and even committing suicide.

In my view, the message is pretty clear: When it comes to our children’s health, it’s always better to err on the side of caution. So if you’re seeing any of the above symptoms –or any other behavior that worries you (don’t be afraid to go with your gut)—get your son evaluated by his pediatrician. If he or she suspects a mental illness, your son will be referred for specialized help and appropriate treatment. Needless to say, it’s critical to diagnose and treat depression in a timely manner so it doesn’t interfere with your son’s ability to function, or his healthy physical, emotional, and social development.

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