When you held your child for the very first time, you were likely brimming with pride and joy. Your heart swelling with enormous love, you’re swept away with streams of thoughts for what your child needs in this immediate moment—as well as plans and dreams for the future. You expect there to be wondrous adventures your child will experience, as well as bumps in the road along the way. And that’s okay,” you say, because you know that life isn’t always an easy journey.
But one thing you probably never considered was how an illness like depression could take hold of your child. And why would you?
Up until recently, it was never believed that children could experience depression. Long ago, studies suggested that children and teenagers didn’t have the emotional capacity or cognitive development to experience the hopelessness and helplessness of depression.
Today, we know that children, even babies, experience depression. The clinical term is called pediatric depression, and rates are higher now than ever before. In the United States alone, evidence suggests that up to 1% of babies, 4 percent of preschool-aged children, 5 percent of school-aged children, and 11 percent of adolescents meet the criteria for major depression.
Facts about Pediatric Depression
1) Depression isn’t a weakness or a result of laziness. It’s real. Depression is a very real illness that affects the emotional, social, behavioral and physical health of children and adults. There are genetic and biological factors that predispose a child for depression, but life experiences also influence its development.
2) It affects babies, children and adolescents. Pediatric depression is a significant health concern. Evidence suggests that up to 1% of babies, 4% of preschool aged children, 5% of school-aged children and 11% percent of adolescents meet the criteria for major depression.
3) Depression will NOT go away on its own. A serious mental illness cannot be willed away or brushed aside with a change in attitude. Ignoring the problem doesn’t give it the slip either. Depression is serious, but treatable illness, with a success rates upwards of 80% children who receive treatment.
4) Good parents don't always detect if their child is depressed. Most children who suffer with depression keep their thoughts and feelings masked. The only way for parents to understand depression is to be aware of the age specific behaviors and symptoms. Depression is not a result of bad parenting.
5) A depressed child is usually not a loner. It’s important for parents to know that children often mask their depression. So a child can present as happy, social or untroubled on the outside, though internally she is struggling terribly with negative thoughts and despairing feelings.
6) If your depressed child refuses help, there are many things you can do as a parent. If your child won’t go for talk therapy or take medication, there are ways to help. You can seek therapy - separately - with a trained mental health specialist to learn how to help your child in spite of the fact that he won’t attend sessions. Make sure you reach out to your child’s school for support, and consider touching base with other places your child spends time. In a crisis situation, you can drive your child to the nearest hospital emergency room, or contact family, friends or the local police for assistance in getting him there.
7) The risk of suicide for children is very high. Suicide is the 3rd leading cause of death in adolescents ages 15 to 24, and is the 6th leading cause of death in children ages 5 to14. Suicide is significantly linked to depression, so early diagnosis and treatment of pediatric depression is extremely important.
8) Depressed children can lead productive lives. In fact, many high profile people, including President Abraham Lincoln, Writer J.K. Rowlings, Artist Michelangelo, Actor Harrison Ford, Choreographer Alvin Ailey, Actress Courteney Cox, Entrepreneur Richard Branson, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, Rocker Bruce Springsteen and Baseballer Ken Griffey, Jr. have been very successful in their chosen professions – despite struggling with depression in their young lives.
Dr. Deborah Serani is an award-winning author. Her books "Depression and Your Child: A Guide for Parents and Caregivers" and "Living with Depression" are published by Rowman & LIttlefield.