Depression – Can Children Have it?

Can children really suffer from depression?

Yes. We support many children, teenagers and their families who are experiencing depression.  The symptoms of depression are often more difficult to spot in children than in adults but it does exist and once diagnosed, is usually treated successfully.

Childhood depression different from the everyday sad feelings that occur as a child develops.  Just because a child seems sad does not necessarily mean he or she has significant depression or that treatment is required.

It is often when the sadness is persistent, or if disruptive behaviour that interferes with normal social activities, interests, schoolwork, or family life develops, it may indicate that he or she has a depressive illness. Keep in mind that while depression is a serious illness, it is also a treatable one.

How can I tell if my child is depressed?

The symptoms of depression in children vary. It is often undiagnosed and untreated because they are passed off as normal emotional and psychological changes that happen as a child grows up and faces new challenges.  Children may appear angry or sad, and many escape into other activities such as computer games to mask their feelings if sadness and inadequacy.

Signs and symptoms of depression in children include:

  • Irritability or anger.
  • Continuous feelings of sadness, hopelessness.
  • Social withdrawal.
  • Increased sensitivity to rejection.
  • Changes in appetite – either increased or decreased.
  • Changes in sleep – sleeplessness or excessive sleep.
  • Vocal outbursts or crying.
  • Difficulty concentrating.
  • Fatigue and low energy.
  • Physical complaints (such as stomach-aches, headaches) that do not respond to treatment
  • Reduced ability to function during events and activities at home or with friends, in school, extracurricular activities, and in other hobbies or interests.
  • Feelings of worthlessness or guilt.
  • Impaired thinking or concentration.
  • Thoughts of death or suicide

Not all children have all of these symptoms. In fact, most will display different symptoms at different times and in different settings. Although some children may continue to function reasonably well in structured environments, most with significant depression will suffer a noticeable change in social activities, loss of interest in school and poor academic performance, or a change in how they look. Children may also begin using drugs or alcohol, especially if they are over the age of 12.

How is the diagnosis made?

If the symptoms of depression in your child have lasted for at least two weeks, you should make an appointment with your child’s GP to make sure there are no physical reasons for the symptoms, and to request that your child receives proper treatment. Following this, you may be referred to a psychologist for an assessment of your child’s mood and functioning.  This assessment will involve meeting with you and your child and with your permission, obtaining information from school should this be appropriate.  This will help to determine whether your child is depressed or whether there are other reasons for these symptoms.

What are the treatment options?

Treatment options for children with depression are similar to those for adults, including psychotherapy and medication. Psychologists will support you with how to cope with your child’s mood and difficulties, as well as offer one to one therapeutic support to your child.  While this is often very effective in treating depression in children, antidepressant medicine might be considered as an additional option if there is no significant improvement.

Parenting and depression in children

As a parent, it is sometimes easier not to think about the possibility that your child may be depressed.  You may put off seeking the help of a mental healthcare professional because of the social stigmas that your associate with mental illness. It is very important for you – as the parent – to understand depression and how you can help, and the importance of treatment so that your child may continue to grow physically and emotionally in a healthy way. If you are concerned, it is important to seek treatment.

Parents should be particularly vigilant for signs that may indicate that their child is at risk of suicide.

Warning signs of suicidal behaviour in children include:

  • Many depressive symptoms (changes in eating, sleeping, activities)
  • Social isolation
  • Talk of suicide, hopelessness, or helplessness
  • Increased acting-out behaviours (sexual/behavioural)
  • Increased risk-taking behaviours
  • Frequent accidents
  • Substance abuse
  • Focus on morbid and negative themes
  • Talk about death and dying
  • Increased crying or reduced emotional expression
  • Giving away possessions

Can childhood depression go away without medical treatment?

Childhood depression tends to come and go in episodes. There can be spontaneous recovery from childhood depression. However, once a child has one bout of childhood depression, he or she is more likely to get depressed again.

If you are concerned, ask your GP for a referral to a child and adolescent mental health team, or you are welcome to contact us to have a chat about your concerns and support and treatment that we can offer.

Please see related article on when to seek professional help.



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