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Could Your Child Be Depressed?


WebMD Feature from "Redbook" Magazine

By Jeannette Moninger
Redbook Magazine Logo
It's more than just the blues: Clinical depression among kids is on the rise. Here's how to tell if your child is suffering, and how to get help.

At first, Andrea Carpenter* blamed preadolescent hormones for her 10-year-old daughter's moodiness. "Allie was extremely irritable at home, and she'd get snippy with her dad and me for no apparent reason," says the Marietta, GA, mom. Life at the Carpenters' home grew so tense that the family started seeing a counselor who, after a few sessions, recommended that Allie visit a psychiatrist. "He mentioned depression, but I thought it was just puberty," Andrea says. Her thinking quickly changed after Allie said she wished she was never alive and talked about cutting her throat. "I was devastated — I knew she wasn't a happy-go-lucky kid, but I never thought a 10-year-old could be suicidal."

In fact, depression is the second most common childhood mental health problem. (Attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder is number one.) An estimated one in 33 children and one in eight teens are depressed, and the World Health Organization predicts that the number of kids — and adults — diagnosed with the disorder could double by the year 2020. Fewer than a fourth of the estimated 12 million kids in the United States who suffer from psychiatric disorders receive treatment, however, which places them at high risk for failing school, abusing drugs and alcohol, and committing crimes. Kids with untreated depression also are 12 times more likely to commit suicide. The nation's suicide rate for children jumped nearly 10 percent from 2003 to 2004, the largest increase in 14 years.

Even though up to 80 percent of depressed kids improve with treatment, many parents delay seeking help because of the stigma of mental illness. "I wish I would have reacted quicker, but it's a hard thing to admit your 7-year-old child is mentally ill," says Carmen Vandyne, a Columbus, OH, mom whose 11-year-old daughter, Addison, was diagnosed with depression at age 7. Other parents hope their child will just get over it on their own. But "depressed kids aren't just going through phases that they'll outgrow — they find it difficult to manage their emotions without professional help," says child psychiatrist Harold Koplewicz, M.D., founder of the New York University Child Study Center.

Figuring out the difference between true depression and temporary moodiness is crucial. Here's how to tell if your child has a problem — and what you can do to help.

*Names have been changed.

What are the warning signs?

While all children feel sad from time to time or have the occasional bad day, a child with depression remains in a funk for weeks or months. During this time, she's likely to struggle at school, isolate herself from friends, cause problems at home, and act like Allie Carpenter did — angry, moody, and irritable. Depressed kids are also as confused by their emotions as their parents are; they can't describe how they're feeling. Instead, they might complain about stomachaches, develop exaggerated fears, grumble about being bored, lack energy, or talk about death.

Three years ago, Boston resident Robyn Hanley assumed her then 16-year-old son, Matthew, was going through typical teenage angst when his grades slipped and he started missing school because his stomach hurt. "I wasn't really worried until he stopped hanging out with his friends and participating in activities that he loved so much," she says. Matthew's guidance counselor noticed the changes in him and suggested that the family talk to their doctor. After Matthew was referred to a psychiatrist and diagnosed with depression, Robyn learned that withdrawing from pleasurable activities and family and friends is a key sign that a child is depressed. "It's frustrating, because you just want your child to lighten up and enjoy life," she says, "but I've learned that a depressed kid can't control how his illness makes him feel."

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