For many years there have been discussions as to whether or not children possess the developmental maturity to experience or suffer from depression. Numerous studies have indicated, however, that childhood depression is a very real and serious disorder among children, and as many as 3% to 8% of all children and teenagers suffer from various forms of depression.
Looking at the numbers, one may feel that if only 3% of kids are affected, depression is not all that common – but considering that there are more than 18 million children in South Africa, 3% to 8% of this number indicates that there is a high number of South African kids who are battling with depression!
At what age can depression start?
According to an article that was published in Current Trends in Psychological Science in 2010, children from as young as three years old may display clear signs of depression, such as the inability to experience pleasure from play, or suffering from extreme sadness or irritability. Nearly twice as many girls will suffer from depression as boys by the age of 15, and before puberty boys seem to have an increased rate of depression when compared to girls. Studies that have focused on childhood depression have also shown that the earlier the depression starts, the more common it is for depression to return later in life, and because of this it’s critically important for parents to know and recognize the warning signs, identify depression and ensure that their kids receive the treatment they need.
What is childhood depression?
A child who, every now and then, feels a little down or -blue’ is not automatically suffering from depression. Feeling a bit sad or upset is a natural part of life but when these feelings of sadness linger and they start to radically disrupt the child’s life – this may be termed as depression. When a child loses interest in social activities that used to bring them joy, shows no interest in their schoolwork or is withdrawn from family life, this may be a sign that they are depressed. As with adult depression, depression in children can be due to a series of factors which relate to physical health, life events, family history, environment, genetic vulnerability, and biochemical disturbance.
What are the symptoms?
It’s important to remember that not all depressed kids will exhibit the same symptoms. Some kids may have all or most of the common symptoms and this lets them be easily and quickly diagnosed. Other children may show the symptoms of what is known as -masked’ depression – where the child acts out or is angry rather than gloomy. With -masked’ depression, or even in cases where kids are depressed, the children are able to function relatively well or appear -normal’, and parents may simply put the changes in their behaviour or in their eating and sleeping habits down to hormonal changes, or they may feel that -it’s just a phase’ and they will come right!
The most common symptoms of depression include:
- Angry, irritable and bad tempered;
- Feeling continually sad and feelings of hopelessness;
- Withdrawing from friends and from family;
- Overly sensitive to rejection;
- Appetite changes, the child’s appetite may either increase or decrease;
- A child can either not sleep or they sleep excessively;
- Cries easily and is easily upset;
- Has problems concentrating and focusing (not only at school but also at home);
- The child frequently complains of having no energy or is always tired;
- Suffers from many unexplained tummy or headaches that do not respond to treatment;
- Expresses feelings of worthlessness or of guilt;
- Talks of death or suicide.
Can childhood depression be prevented?
In cases where there is a family history of depression, children are at a higher risk of suffering from childhood depression. Studies into childhood depression have shown that in cases where parents have themselves been diagnosed with depression, children may often fall victim to the disorder. Apart from the depression that is sparked by a family history of depression, kids who are exposed to constant family conflicts, who are abused or neglected, or who live in homes where parents frequently abuse drugs or alcohol are also more likely to suffer from depression. Teenagers who use drugs or alcohol are also at an increased risk of becoming depressed.
We must remember that depression is not usually due to one single event or as a result of one definite cause or reason, but it is usually a combination of factors that add together and what’s more the causes for depression differ for each child. Depression can be as a result of lowered levels of neurotransmitters (chemicals that carry signals through the nervous system) in the brain, and this lowers the child’s ability to feel good or feel happy. Genetics also play an important role since depression can be hereditary, and this means that if a close relative (such as a parent, grandparent, etc) has suffered or does suffer from depression, the child is likely to suffer from a form of depression.
Depression can be treated
The important thing to bear in mind is that if you suspect your child of being depressed- depression is treatable and it is critical that a child receives the right help, right away! Depression can be successfully treated and a depressed child can be helped. More than 80% of people who become depressed are successfully treated but should the warning signs be ignored and if a child is not treated, depression can be lethal as it is a major risk factor for suicidal behaviour.
Depression is treated with psychotherapy, medication or with a combination of both. A professional will prescribe medication and even though, it could very well require a few attempts to get the dosage or the drug right, children who follow the doctor’s orders will quickly start to feel better and more importantly they will be able to shake the gloomy cloud of depression.