Childhood depression commonly overlooked

While clinical depression in adults and the elderly is relatively common, evidence shows that an increasing number of children are being diagnosed with depression.

Peter Jordaan, Principal Officer of Fedhealth says that unfortunately depression in children is still often commonly overlooked and often mistaken for normal developmental problems.

Jordaan says that while recognition of childhood depression is growing, much of the attention and focus is on teenagers 15-years and above because the risk of suicide is high in this age group. Far less attention is paid to the plight of children and early adolescents, although all the symptoms, including suicide, do occur in this age group too.

“Childhood depression is different from the normal everyday blues and the emotions that occur as the child grows and goes through the various developmental stages. If the child continues to show persistent mood or behavioural changes parents should take note of these and lookout for the telltale signs or patterns in mood or behaviour that are commonly associated with depression,” he says.

Jordaan explains that the difficulty in diagnosing childhood depression stems from the fact that not all children have all of or the same symptoms and most will display different symptoms at differing times and settings. Many parents also put off seeking the help of a mental healthcare professional because of the social stigmas associated with mental illness. “It is vital that parents make sure they are aware of the warning signals associated with depression and then seek timely treatment to ensure that the child continues to grow physically and emotionally in a healthy way,” he adds.

The warning signs of depression in children are many and varied, says Jordaan, but most children suffering from severe depression will generally display a noticeable change in social activities, loss of interest in school and poor academic performance, or a change in appearance and behaviour.

Irritability or anger, continuous feelings of sadness or hopelessness, social withdrawal, changes in appetite, changes in sleep, difficulty concentrating, fatigue and low energy, physical complaints (such as stomach-aches, headaches) that do not respond to treatment, feelings of worthlessness or guilt, and vocal outburst and crying are some of the more common primary symptoms of depression.

As in adults, depression in children can be caused by any combination of factors that relate to physical health, life events, family history, environment, genetic vulnerability, and biochemical disturbance. “Children with a family history of depression are at greater risk of experiencing depression themselves. Children from dysfunctional or conflicted families or those having suffered a traumatic event as well as children and teens that abuse substances like alcohol and drugs are at much greater risk of depression,” adds Jordaan.

Treatment options for children with depression are similar to those for adults, including psychotherapy (counselling) and medication. “It is important that parents should be concerned about any noticeable changes in their child’s mood or behaviour that they seek help from a qualified health care professional. Severe depression is treatable and the correct diagnosis and treatment can have a huge impact on quality of life irrespective of age,” concludes Jordaan.