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What Every Parent Should Understand About Childhood Depression

19/01/2016 8:38 AM IST | Updated 29/08/2016 9:44 PM IST
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By Dr Pervin Dadachanji

The meaning of depression is made more complicated more than it needs to be. The term is used carelessly to describe both temporary and chronic emotions, and as a result, people who suffer from clinical depression are often dismissed as feeling "a little down". But depression is an illness that requires treatment, just like any other illness. In this post I'm going to talk about how to identify it and how to help. .

Let's start with the cases of two girls.

The first girl, Mila, is 12 years old. Her dog, a 15-year-old Labrador, has just died. Mila is very upset. She cries incessantly as she misses her beloved pooch. Her mother tries consoling her; for a while, Mila seems less sad before she slips back into a morose mood. The only thing that cheers her is the neighbour's two-month-old puppy.

It's easier to explain depression by stating what it's not. Feeling sad occasionally is not depression; sadness is just one small aspect.

Then, there's Maya. Maya is also 12. She has been feeling rather down and sad for more than a month. She is not interested in her friends, though she has many, or in her extracurricular activities; she excels at gymnastics, football, and dance, but no longer wants to go to her classes. She also feels tired all the time and finds it very difficult to get out of bed every morning. Her brother tries to cheer her up, but nothing seems to work.

Both these young girls are sad. Some may even say they are depressed -- but do both have depression? No.

Mila is sad. She is experiencing the emotion of sadness due to the death of her dog. However, she is able to be distracted from her grief and is happy when she is with the neighbour's puppy. But Maya does not feel happy at all, under any circumstances. Maya is depressed.

It's easier to explain depression by stating what it's not. Feeling sad occasionally is not depression; sadness is just one small aspect.

Causes of depression

Depression is an illness like any other. Parents often say, "I can't understand why my daughter/son is depressed. S/he has nothing to worry about. S/he is a smart girl/boy with lovely friends." Depression bewilders parents. It is difficult for us to accept that depression is outside of a person's control. But the bottom line is that depression is a physiological condition just like asthma or diabetes.

Just as diabetes is caused by low insulin levels in the blood, depression is caused by low serotonin levels in the brain.

Actually, diabetes is a good comparison. Just as diabetes is caused by low insulin levels in the blood, depression is caused by low serotonin levels in the brain. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter, i.e. a chemical in the brain that helps regulate mood. And just as diabetes is more likely to affect people with a family history or because of certain lifestyle factors, depression is more likely to affect people with a family history or with difficult life circumstances and poor coping skills.

Busting some common myths

Because of the confusion around the mere blues and depression, a lot of myths have developed.

Myth 1: Children have no reason to be depressed.

Of course they do! They have academic pressures, social pressures, problems at home, and more, just like any other person.

Myth 2: You can snap out of depression with enough will power.

Depression is due to a neurotransmitter deficiency. Just as you wouldn't tell a diabetic to snap out of his diabetes, you cannot expect someone to just snap out of depression. Going for a walk or pushing yourself to be happier isn't treatment.

Myth 3: Those who say they will end their lives, never do so.

While some children do use this as an empty threat when angry, kids with Depression who say they want to commit suicide often attempt to do so.

Myth 4: If I mention the topic of suicidal thoughts to my child, I am planting the thought in her mind.

On the contrary, when your child hears you are open to discussing anything with her, she will share her thoughts with you.

How to help

First, you should know what to look for. There are various symptoms of clinical depression, and they may not all occur simultaneously or, indeed, ever. But some of the following symptoms should be present for at least a week and should impair the child's functioning at home, school and with peers before you start worrying:

  • Sadness of mood
  • Feeling disinterested in previously pleasurable activities such as going out with friends, playing a sport, listening to music
  • Crying a lot, often without reason
  • Feeling helpless and hopeless
  • Suicidal thoughts or thoughts to harm self, like cutting, picking at the skin
  • Lack of energy and feeling tired all the time
  • Sleep and appetite disturbances -- either excessive or reduced
  • Physical symptoms such as pain in the abdomen, nausea/vomiting
  • Excessive anger

Second, if you're concerned about your child, the best thing you can do is to consult a psychiatrist. If he or she is diagnosed with depression, it's not the end of the world! Treatment in the form of talk therapy and, if needed, medication can help and should start immediately.

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