Depression is a serious mental health issue that can affect even very young children. Depressed children are generally lacking in energy and enthusiasm. They often become withdrawn and are unable to concentrate or to enjoy life. If they are in school, they usually perform poorly. Sometimes they are irritable and sulky or even belligerent. If they are old enough to talk, they may refer to themselves as stupid and ugly, friendless, unloved and unlovable, worthless, or even hopeless. They may be preoccupied with themes of death and dying, and, occasionally, they may contemplate or even attempt suicide.
There are different types of depression including:
- Major depression: most severe form characterized by a episodes of disabling depressive moods
- Dysthymia: a milder but more chronic form of depression.
Risk factors for depression may include the following:
- Having a parent or relative who has suffered from depression
- Children who have experienced a significant loss or significant trauma or abuse
- Substance abuse
- Children with chronic illnesses
- Children who have attention, learning, or conduct disorders
- Poor academic skills
- Ineffective coping skills
- Frequent conflicts with family, friends, and teachers
- Children who feel unwelcome or accepted at school, or those who are bullied
What are the symptoms? Some common symptoms of depression include:
- Persistent sad and irritable mood
- Loss of interest in hobbies or activities that were previously enjoyable
- Significant change in appetite and body weight
- Low energy level/recent changes in energy level
- Difficulty sleeping or oversleeping
- Feelings of worthlessness or inappropriate guilt
- Difficulty concentrating, remembering, making decisions, or getting necessary things done (such as homework)
- Recurrent thoughts of death or suicide
- Low self-esteem
- Crying spells
- Withdrawal or social isolation
Symptoms specific to children and teens:
- Frequent vague, non-specific physical complaints (headache, stomachache)
- Frequent absences from school or unusually poor school performance
- School refusal or excessive separation anxiety
- Outbursts of shouting, complaining, unexplained irritability, or crying
- Chronic boredom or apathy
- Lack of interest in playing with friends
- Extreme sensitivity to rejection or failure
- Regression (acting babyish)
- Unusual temper tantrums, defiance, or oppositional behavior
Age specific symptoms are as follows:
- Birth to age 3: feeding problems, failure to thrive that has no identifiable physical cause, tantrums, lack of playfulness, apathy, and less expression of positive feelings in general
- Ages 3 to 5: accident-prone, subject to phobias and exaggerated fears, likely to exhibit delays or regression in important developmental milestones, and inclined to apologize excessively for minor mistakes and problems such as spilling food or forgetting to put away toys
- Ages 6 to 8: expresses vague physical complaints, aggressive behavior, clinging to parents, and avoidance of new people and challenges
- Ages 9 to 12: expresses morbid thoughts, extreme worry about school work, insomnia, and blaming themselves for disappointing their parents and teachers
**Just because a child exhibits some or all of these characteristics does not necessarily mean that the child has depression. When these signs and symptoms are present, particularly if they persist most of the time for a month or more, it is important to have the child evaluated by a mental health professional who specializes in children.
How does Depression impact classroom performance?
- Symptoms of depression can manifest themselves in school as behavior problems, lack of attention in class, an unexplained drop in grades, cutting class, dropping out of activities, and/or fights with or withdrawal from friends.
- All of these characteristics can carry a negative impact on a students ability to learn in class. As well, left untreated, depression can lead to continued academic and social problems, substance abuse, social alienation, risk-taking behavior, and suicidal thinking and behavior. What can be done at school? The most important thing schools can do is identify early children who may be at-risk for depression.
Other school-based interventions may include:
- Develop a caring, supportive school environment
- Develop a relationship with the student
- Use positive approaches as opposed to punishment, sarcasm, etc.
- Consider accommodations for assignments or tasks (i.e., extended time, break assignments into smaller parts, extra help in setting up schedules or study habits, peer helper)
- Address any bullying behavior that may be occurring
- Establish clear rules and publicize and enforce them fairly and consistently
- Maintain communication with parents and mental health providers
What can parents do?
- Know your child and your childs friends
- Be actively involved with your childs school
- Learn the signs and symptoms of depression and monitor your child
- Take your child to school or community health care/mental health screenings when these are offered
- Participate in parent training sessions offered by the school or by community agencies
- Cooperate fully in the evaluation process if your child needs to be evaluated
- Be an active participant in developing a treatment plan
- Make sure that guns, medications, and other potentially lethal implements are not accessible to children
- Do not hesitate to ask your child directly about suicidal thoughts, drug involvement, alcohol use, or problems with bullies
- Learn about diagnosis and treatment options if your child has been diagnosed