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Depression in children

Can children really suffer from depression?

Yes. According to the Office of National Statistics, 4% of children suffer from an emotional disorder such as anxiety or depression. The good news is that doctors and specialists can accurately diagnose, treat and manage mental health problems with psychotherapy and medication - and that includes childhood depression.

Childhood depression is different from the normal "blues" and everyday emotions that occur as a child develops. Just because a child seems sad does not necessarily mean he or she has significant depression. If the sadness becomes persistent, or if disruptive behaviour that interferes with normal social activities, interests, schoolwork, or family life develops, it may indicate that he or she has a depressive illness. Keep in mind that while depression is a serious illness, it is also a treatable one.

How can I tell if my child is depressed?

The symptoms of depression in children vary. It is often undiagnosed and untreated because they are passed off as normal emotional and psychological changes that occur during growth. Early medical studies focused on "masked" depression, where a child's depressed mood was evidenced by acting up or angry behaviour. While this does occur, particularly in younger children, many children display sadness or low mood similar to adults who are depressed. The primary symptoms of depression revolve around sadness, a feeling of hopelessness, and mood changes.

Signs and symptoms of depression in children include:

  • Irritability or anger.
  • Continuous feelings of sadness, hopelessness.
  • Social withdrawal.
  • Increased sensitivity to rejection.
  • Changes in appetite - either increased or decreased.
  • Changes in sleep - sleeplessness or excessive sleep.
  • Vocal outbursts or crying.
  • Difficulty concentrating.
  • Fatigue and low energy.
  • Physical complaints (such as stomach-aches, headaches) that do not respond to treatment
  • Reduced ability to function during events and activities at home or with friends, in school, extracurricular activities, and in other hobbies or interests.
  • Feelings of worthlessness or guilt.
  • Impaired thinking or concentration.
  • Thoughts of death or suicide

Not all children have all of these symptoms. In fact, most will display different symptoms at different times and in different settings. Although some children may continue to function reasonably well in structured environments, most with significant depression will suffer a noticeable change in social activities, loss of interest in school and poor academic performance, or a change in appearance. Children may also begin using drugs or alcohol, especially if they are over the age of 12.

Although relatively rare in youths under 12, young children do attempt suicide - and may do so impulsively when they are upset or angry. Girls are more likely to attempt suicide, but boys are more likely to actually succeed in their attempt. Children with a family history of violence, alcohol abuse, or physical or sexual abuse are at greater risk of suicide, as are those with depressive symptoms.

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