by: Michael Kabel
It's a silent, insidious mental disease that affects one in every fifty children: depression. For parents, watching their children collapse into persistent feelings of sadness and emotional withdrawal can be a slow, heartrending ordeal.
Clinical depression - that is, depression lasting longer than two weeks at a time - is more common in boys than girls under the age of ten. Around age sixteen, girls begin to lead the statistics. For concerned parents, it's a time to rally around their children and work to curtail the symptoms and effects as soon as possible.
The symptoms of depression
Depression's most common symptoms are a continuing feeling of sadness or hopelessness, irritability followed by anger, social withdrawal, fatigue or low levels of energy, difficulty concentrating and sleeping, and intense feelings of guilt. Other symptoms may also include an increased sensitivity to rejection, vocal outbursts of temper, and even thoughts of death or suicide in extreme cases.
It's important for parents to realize that not all children will display all symptoms. Nor is the presence of all or a majority of symptoms required to make a diagnosis.
Depression's warning signs
Children beginning to struggle with depression typically retreat from social interaction with friends and family members. They'll often seem sullen and resentful of everyday activities. Many begin to radically change or alter their appearance or clothing. Children over the age of twelve are also at increased risk of abusing alcohol and drugs.
Depression is tied very closely to genetics; parents who battle the disease themselves often pass it on to their children. It is also sometimes biochemical and even seasonal in nature.
Making a diagnosis
Children who exhibit several warning signs for clinical depression over a course of several weeks should be taken to their doctor in order to rule out any physical reasons for the change in behavior. Once such causes have been ruled out, the doctor may recommend the child see a mental health professional such as a psychiatrist or clinical social worker for evaluation.
In making their diagnosis, the mental health professional will interview both the parents and the child, and look to identify and remove depressive causes within the child's daily life. Medical research has not yet devised a conclusive test for depression, so experts instead attempt to see depressive patterns and extrapolate a diagnosis from their findings.
Depression and other childhood mental diseases
Depression is closely linked with other mental health problems common to children, including Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and Conduct Disorder.
Bipolar disorder (sometimes called "manic depression") is an extreme form of mental illness that forces children to cycle between feelings of deep depression and happy "up" periods. Bipolar disorder is more common in children with ADHD.
These various disorders will sometimes mask or distort the symptoms of depression, making a correct assessment more difficult.
Depressed children and suicide
Though relatively rare in children, attempts at suicide are nevertheless known to occur, usually at the spur of the moment following a tragic impulse. Girls are more likely to make the attempt, but statistics show boys are more successful in actually killing themselves.
Doctors and mental health professionals usually prescribe an antidepressant and mood stabilizers to help the depressed child manage his symptoms. Therapy is also sometimes recommended to help the child confront and deal with the causes.