“Can young children really have depression?” – is one of the most common questions mental health practitioners get. In fact, prevalence rates in the US have shown that about 3.2% of children aged 3-17 have a diagnosed depression (CDC, 2018). Of course, these prevalence rates do not include cases that haven’t been diagnosed and we need more statistics that include various other countries and communities.
Childhood depression is more than a simple “mood swing”, “bad mood” or “feeling blue” as it can interfere with the child’s daily activities, schoolwork, family life and all other areas that are necessary for the child to thrive.
Symptoms of depression in young children may include (source DSM-V):
- Sadness / low mood
- Lack of interest in activities that the child previously used to enjoy
- Fatigue and low energy
- Changes in sleep patterns (oversleeping or sleeping less)
- Changes in appetite (eating more or not eating enough)
- An inability to concentrate on things
- Feelings of worthlessness / guilt
- Crying spells
- Social withdrawal (from family and friends)
- More lethargic than usual
- Physical complaints (headaches that doesn’t get resolved medically)
- Thoughts about death or suicide
Note: children may not have all of these symptoms combined, they will show different symptoms at different times and in different settings.
There are various different factors that could cause depression. A few of them that may increase the child’s risk of depression include:
- Genetic predispositions (family history of depression)
- Physical, emotional or sexual abuse
- Life events / family difficulties
- A challenging environment
If you notice changes in your child’s behavior over the past couple of weeks and if you notice some of the symptoms described above, it is recommended to begin by scheduling a visit with the child’s medical doctor to rule out any physical or medical reason that could explain the behavior.
It is also recommended to then seek help from a mental health specialist (Child Clinical Psychologist and/or Child Psychiatrist) to explore treatment options and help your child overcome the experience of depression. Psychotherapy (including Cognitive-Behavioral Therapeutic techniques) have been shown to be very beneficial in reducing depression symptoms. In some cases, Psychologists also recommend seeking the help of a Psychiatrist, particularly if the child has suicidal ideations to explore the option of psychopharmacology (medication).
It’s important to note that not all children who feel sad have depression but it is best to have a psychological evaluation done if you have any doubts. There are also various support groups online to help parents cope with their children’s experience of depression. Don’t hesitate to seek help.
Dr. Elena Andrioti
PhD – Psychologist