Noor Hyder discovers how parents can spot and treat childhood depression
Sad, clingy and suffering from dreadful nightmares, Tom’s moods turned from light to dark almost overnight after his parents divorce. He is only five and yet he has just been diagnosed with depression.
“The guilt is overwhelming,” says his mother. “I feel that my ex and I have somehow robbed him of his childhood innocence. He went from being a happy baby to a tearful toddler. Words can’t describe how terrible it’s been witnessing the transition and knowing that the best years of his life are being blighted by an affliction usually reserved for adults.”
Sadness, guilt and despair are all emotions we face at some point in our lives. For those suffering with prolonged feelings of despondency and dejection, however, depression may be an issue. It’s not unusual. In fact, more than 350 million people are currently diagnosed with the condition. But does it really affect youngsters?
Recent studies show a worrying rise in children with depression, with one in 30 being identified with it.
Childhood depression is not simply the ‘blues’ or a ‘bad attitude.’ When sadness starts to interfere with normal social activities, it has to be dealt with, say experts.
Of course, the symptoms of depression are not necessarily palpable, which is why it’s so important to be able to recognise them. Some of the main signs of childhood depression include social withdrawal, irritability, increased sensitivity to rejection, noticeable changes in appetite, sleeplessness or excessive sleeping, difficulty concentrating, fatigue, headaches and stomach aches as well as feelings of worthlessness.
That’s a heavy load for such a small person, isn’t it?
The child may not have all of the symptoms in one go. In fact, some are dependent on the time and setting. For the parents facing the issue, though, their first concern is to identify the cause. As Dr. Aziz Al Nomani, specialist in Psychiatry at Sultan Qaboos University explains: “There is no single incident that triggers childhood depression.”
He states that 50 per cent of occurrences are genetically predisposed and statistics show that an alarming one in 30 kids are diagnosed with some form of depression. The causes can vary from stress and loss of a loved one to major disappointments – but it could also simply be the result of a chemical imbalance in the child’s body.
Despite the increasing social acceptance of mental illnesses, there’s still some reluctance when it comes to children. One of the most common responses to hearing a diagnosis is: “But what could he or she possibly be depressed about?” It can be easy to forget that youngsters are sometimes powerless when it comes to their lives, and they often worry about peer acceptance, grades and parental expectation, as well as difficulties they are ill equipped to handle emotionally such as divorce, poverty, learning disabilities and abuse. Another factor is that depression may be a biologically based illness. As Dr. Aziz explains, childhood depression is physiologically exactly the same as adult depression – concerning neurotransmitters and the release of serotonin. Children with an inherited tendency for depression will be more susceptible to factors that may trigger depression and, unlike adults, may have trouble labeling their feelings and vocalising their thoughts.
So what can caregivers of a depressed child do? First and foremost – talk to them, says the expert. Also, don’t panic. Depression has become increasingly treatable through a host of methods including psychotherapy, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and if necessary, medication. Check with your family doctor to find out if there are any straightforward, physical causes for your child’s low mood and feelings of fatigue and body aches, especially since many conditions like diabetes, anemia and mononucleosis all mimic depressive symptoms. It might also be helpful to talk to your child’s teacher to find out if they have noticed any changes in their behaviour and mood.
Finally, it’s important to remind your child that you’re there for support – repeated statements of love and strength are crucial because children with depression often feel unworthy of affection and attention.
In Muscat, treatment can be found at many institutions including Sultan Qaboos University Hospital, Muscat Private Hospital and Al-Harub Medical Centre.
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