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Mental Health: Depression in Children

Childhood depression is different from the normal "blues" and everyday emotions that occur as a child develops. Just because a child seems depressed or sad, does not necessarily mean they have depression. But if these symptoms become persistent, disruptive and interfere with social activities, interests, schoolwork and family life, it may indicate that he or she is suffering from the medical condition depression.

How Can I Tell if My Child Is Depressed?

The symptoms of depression in children vary. Early medical studies focused on "masked" depression, where a child's depressed mood was evidenced by acting out or angry behavior. 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 and may include:

  • Irritability or anger
  • Continuous feelings of sadness or 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 stomachaches, 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, most kids 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.

Suicide

Although relatively rare in youths under 12, young children do attempt suicide -- and may do so impulsively when they are upset or angry.

Suicide is a serious problem within the teenage population. Adolescent suicide is a leading cause of death among youth and young adults in the U.S. It is estimated that 500,000 teens attempt suicide every year with 5,000 completing the act. These are epidemic proportions.

Children with a family history of violence, alcohol abuse, or physical or sexual abuse are at greater risk for suicide, as are those with depressive symptoms.

Suicide Warning Signs

Parents should be particularly vigilant for signs that may indicate that their child is at risk for suicide. Warning signs of suicidal behavior in children include:

  • Many depressive symptoms (changes in eating, sleeping, activities)
  • Social isolation
  • Talk of suicide, hopelessness, or helplessness
  • Increased acting-out of undesirable behaviors (sexual/behavioral)
  • Increased risk-taking behaviors
  • Frequent accidents
  • Substance abuse
  • Focus on morbid and negative themes
  • Talk about death and dying
  • Increased crying or reduced emotional expression
  • Giving away possessions

WebMD Medical Reference

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