Sunday, July 4, 2010

Depression in Children

Preeti was a popular and intelligent student, who always did well in school and was liked by her teachers. However, teachers were surprised to find a sudden drop in her performance when midyear in class 7. An otherwise outgoing and gregarious student, Preeti slowly started withdrawing from others and did not seem interested in studies. Known for her neatness and meticulous work, she started submitting incomplete and messy worksheets. Over time, she always came across as uninterested and demotivated, lost in her own thoughts, and not interacting with anyone in school.

Preeti was suffering from childhood depression. Her parents were shocked to hear this, and refused to accept it, stating that it was impossible! Sadly, it is possible, and it is the reality for many children like Preeti. Statistics show that about 2-3 % school-going children suffer from clinical depression. Depression is a mental illness characterized by a persistent negative or sad mood and a loss of interest in activities. There are several other symptoms, such as changes in sleep patterns, changes in eating habits, feelings of hopelessness and worthlessness, difficulty concentrating and so forth.

How can I know if my child is depressed?

The presentation of depression in children can be different from that in adults, and can take various forms. Children are unable to express their negative feelings verbally, and often, the depression manifests itself in one or more of the following symptoms:

  • Drop in academic performance: This is often the first presentation. Typically, depressed students start doing poorly in school. As depression also has repercussions on concentration, memory as well as motivation, grades start falling.
  • Physical Complaints: The child may complain of vague health problems like stomach aches, headaches and so forth.
  • Irritability, sadness and crying: All children throw tantrums from time to time, all children are irritable and tearful at times. But check if this is happening more often than usual and for a number of weeks.
  • Loss of interest in activities otherwise enjoyed by the child: If a child shows disinterest in his or her favorite toys, activities, games and so forth, for a considerable period of time.
  • Withdrawing from friends: Of course, many children are by nature introverted and prefer to be by themselves. However, if a child who is otherwise outgoing and sociable suddenly starts staying away from or avoiding friends, its worth looking into.
  • Sleep problems: the child may become restless in his sleep, or may suddebly wake up at night, or may find it difficult to go to sleep.
  • Appetite changes: A depressed child may either lose his appetite, or may start eating more.
  • Suicidal thoughts: In extreme cases, the child may start contemplating suicide.

What do I do if my child is depressed?

First of all, don’t blame yourself! As parents, guilt is the first thing that will come to haunt us. Is it something I did or did not do that has caused depression in my child? While it is true that life situations and environmental factors can trigger a depressive episode, remember that depression is an illness, like any other illness and needs to be treated as such. So leave the guilt aside, and focus on getting help for your child.

The first step is to get the child assessed. Timely diagnosis and intervention are crucial, as untreated depression can have devastating effects on the child’s self esteem, future psychological health as well as, in some cases, the safety of the child. This is where the role of the school psychologist or any other mental health professional becomes important. Once a child has been diagnosed as suffering from depression, and its severity assessed, a comprehensive treatment plan needs to be charted out. Counseling and supportive psychotherapy can help the child cope with the depression and associated symptoms. Family therapy is also critical, as it helps the family handle the child better, as well helping family members cope with the child’s depression. In instances where the depression is particularly severe, medication may become necessary.

Depression is a potentially serious mental illness that can have far reaching and at times devastating effects on our children. So if you notice your child showing signs of depression, please talk to your family physician or the school counsellor. With timely intervention, depression can be successfully treated.