Childhood depression has recently been recognized as a serious and rampant condition. As of 2018, about 1.9 million U.S. children aged 3-17 years have diagnosed depression. Depression not only adversely affects children’s academic and social activities, but also negatively impacts their appetite, ability to perform simple day-to-day activities, and their emotional, intellectual and physical development.
Given the prevalence of childhood depression, it is necessary for parents, teachers and caregivers to be able to spot the symptoms.
Why Is It Challenging to Spot Symptoms of Childhood Depression?
It is perfectly normal for children to feel sad and experience mood swings from time to time. And it’s easy to mistake temporary sadness and mood swings for childhood depression and stress, respectively, and vice versa. In this context, the key is to keep an eye out for persistent sadness and note the frequency and severity of intense mood swings. Additionally, keep in mind that these are only two of many signs and symptoms of depression, and it is important to closely note and observe changes in children’s behavior and attitudes.
Other symptoms, such as persistent fatigue and low energy, can be — and often are — mistaken for lethargy or an unwillingness on the part of children to try or cooperate, just as frequent outbursts and crying can be mistaken for tantrums. Similarly, we also tend to dismiss complaints of persistent headaches or stomach aches as ploys. For this reason, it is essential to keep track of fatigue, outbursts, physical complaints and other symptoms.
Keeping track means:
- Noting the frequency and severity of these symptoms;
- Keeping an eye out for situations that tend to trigger these symptoms; and
- Checking whether children seem more sad, angry or discouraged than usual.
In general, it is best to seek professional help if children display any of these symptoms for more than two weeks.
What Can Help?
Parents, educators and caregivers can also familiarize themselves with the disciplinary perspective of cognitive psychology, a branch of psychology that focuses on mental processes such as attention/attention span, language use and thinking. The insights generated by this discipline are remarkably relevant in the context of spotting symptoms of childhood depression.
Cognitive psychology suggests that cognitive processes — especially linguistic expression — are reliable representations of our mental states. And we should regularly monitor children’s use of language and how they communicate.
For example, there is a great difference between a statement such as, “I don’t like this class. It’s boring,” and “I don’t feel happy in general.” The second statement is more likely an indicator of persistent sadness. This is certainly not to say that disinterest cannot be a result of depression. Rather, this difference illustrates how sadness, hopelessness and mood swings can be visible through children’s use of language.
Cognitive psychology allows us to better address childhood depression by urging us to go beyond children’s behavior. It asks us to examine what they say to help differentiate between temporary sadness and depression.
This focus on language in turn enables us to ask children the right questions; That is, it equips us to ask serious, empathetic questions without alienating them. A simple example would be, “I understand you’re not feeling well. What can I do to make you feel better?” Additionally,encouraging children to speak openly about their mental health can be helpful for them in the long run.
With professional help, we can help children with depression lead better lives. But first we need to know how to spot it.
Dennis Wesley is an independent researcher and blogger. His interests include science, technology, engineering, math, the humanities and mental health — especially interdisciplinary practices and methods. You can follow his personal blog here.
We’re always accepting submissions to the NAMI Blog! We feature the latest research, stories of recovery, ways to end stigma and strategies for living well with mental illness. Most importantly: We feature your voices.
Check out our Submission Guidelines for more information.