Depression: It may not just be the “blues”

On the morning of Valentine’s Day, as I drove off from dropping my teenage daughter at school, I knew that the evening would be filled with stories of all the fun she’d had at school, the little snippets of “he said, she said!”
As I was thinking of how much fun the teenage years could be, my mind drifted off to the conversation I had with one of my friends last week about her usually happy teen who had gradually, over the course of a few months, become sad, withdrawn and minimally communicative with family. I had suggested they see a psychologist right away to see if this was the onset of childhood depression.

DepressedTeenage years can be one of the best phases of life. It’s a formative time not only for a teen’s personality but can also shape interests and activities for life. However, if problems during this crucial phase of life are not handled well, the effects can become very hard to remedy or may even become permanent. We as parents are quick to recognize physical illnesses in our kids. But sometimes we fail to do what’s needed for emotional and behavioral problems early on. Sometimes it’s hard to differentiate these problems from normal behavioral variations or mood swings. Sometimes it is the fear of our kids becoming ‘branded’ with the diagnosis of a mental illness and the social stigma that is associated with it.

While depression is a serious illness, it is also a treatable one. About 5% of children and adolescents in the U.S. suffer from depression. Depression is significantly more common in boys under the age of 10. But by age 16, girls have a greater incidence of depression. Children who have environmental stressors, learning disabilities, attention disorders, and anxiety issues are at increased risk of depression. Depression also tends to run in families. Parents should seek help if one or more of these signs of depression persist:

  • Frequent sadness, tearfulness, crying
  • Decreased interest in activities; or inability to enjoy previously favorite activities
  • Hopelessness
  • Persistent boredom; low energy
  • Social isolation, poor communication
  • Low self esteem and guilt
  • Extreme sensitivity to rejection or failure
  • Increased irritability, anger, or hostility
  • Difficulty with relationships
  • Frequent complaints of physical illnesses such as headaches and stomachaches
  • Frequent absences from school or poor performance in school
  • Poor concentration
  • A major change in eating and/or sleeping patterns
  • Talk of or efforts to run away from home
  • Thoughts or expressions of suicide or self destructive behavior

Depressed children and adolescents are at increased risk for committing suicide. They may abuse alcohol or other drugs as a way of trying to feel better. They sometimes resort to ‘acting out’ or display delinquent behavior as a way to combat their sense of failure. Children and adolescents who cause trouble at home or at school may be suffering from depression.

As in adults, depression in children can be caused by any combination of factors that relate to physical health, life events, family history, environment, genetic susceptibility and biochemical disturbance. Depression is not a passing mood, nor is it a condition that will go away without proper treatment. Early diagnosis and treatment are essential for depressed children. Depression is a real illness that requires professional help. Comprehensive treatment often includes both individual and family therapy. Treatment may also include the use of antidepressant medication. Parents should ask their physician to refer them to a mental health professional who can diagnose and treat depression in children and teenagers.

Children suffering from clinical depression cannot simply “snap out of it.”Depression is a brain disorder (mental illness) that affects the whole person: It affects the way one feels, thinks, and acts. Just like the kids with physical ailments, depressed children are hurting too, and it is very important for you — as the parent — to understand depression and realize the importance of prompt treatment so that your child may continue to grow physically and emotionally in a healthy way.

Shobha Bhaskar, M.D. About Shobha Bhaskar, M.D.

Shobha Bhaskar, MD is a pediatric hospitalist with St. Louis Children's Hospital and Washington University School of Medicine, who also sees patients at Children's Hospital facilities at Missouri Baptist Medical Center and Progress West Healthcare. Connect with Dr. Bhaskar on Facebook: ChildrensMomDocs and .

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