Is your child sad or appear to have no affect at all? Is your child preoccupied with the topic of death or other morbid topics? Has your son or daughter expressed suicidal thoughts or ideas? Are they extremely moody or irritable beyond the normal hormonal twists and turns of childhood? Has there been a drastic change in your child’s eating or sleeping patterns? If you answered yes to any of these questions, your child may be suffering from a common but devastating mental health disorder, called depression.
Depression occurs in 8 percent of all adolescent lives. Research indicates that children, in general, are becoming depressed earlier in live. The implications of this is that the earlier the onset of the illness the longer and more chronic the problem. Studies suggest that depression often persists, recurs, and continues into adulthood, and indicates that depression in youth may also predict more severe illness in adult life. Depression in young people often co-occurs with other mental disorders, most commonly anxiety, disruptive behavior, or substance abuse disorders, and with physical illnesses, such as diabetes.
Teenagers often turn to substances to “self-medicate” the feelings of depression. They reject prescribed medications because of the way it makes them feel and because of the negative social implications of being labeled as depressed. Drinking alcohol and using other substances may make teenagers feel better for a short period of time but the need to continually use these substances to feel “high” creates dependence and poses a serious health risk. Depression in adolescence is also associated with an increased risk of suicidal behavior. Suicide is the third leading cause of death for 10 to 24-year-olds and as much as 7 percent of all depressed teens will make a suicide attempt.
Signs that frequently accompany depression in adolescence include: · Frequent vague, non-specific physical complaints such as headaches, muscle aches, stomachaches or tiredness · Frequent absences from school or poor school performance · Talk of or efforts to run away from home · Outbursts of shouting, complaining, unexplained irritability, or crying · Being bored · Lack of interest in playing with friends · Alcohol or substance abuse · Social isolation, poor communication · Fear of death · Extreme sensitivity to rejection or failure · Increased irritability, anger, or hostility · Reckless behavior · Difficulty with relationships
Parents often witness these warning signs but fail to act on them. Why? Because some teens hide the symptoms from their parents or parents chalk it up to a stage or moodiness. Many teenagers go through a time of dark looking/acting behavior with all black clothing and bizarre hair arrangements. This can throw a parent off of the trail of depression by the bewilderment of teen actions and behaviors. In addition, many teens react aggressively when confronted about possible depression by their parents causing mom and dad to back off.
When dealing with teen depression, it is always better to “be safe than sorry.” Coping with an adolescent’s anger is much easier to deal with then handling his or her successful suicide or overdose. When parents notice first notice the signs of depression, it is important to sit down with their teen and ask them, gently but firmly, if they are feeling depressed or suicidal. Contrary to popular belief, asking a child if he or she has had any thoughts of hurting or killing themselves does not cause them to act on that subject. If the teen rejects the idea that they are depressed and continues to show warning signs, it will be necessary to seek professional help.
If the child acknowledges that he or she is depressed, immediately contact your physician and seek the assistance of a mental health professional that works with children and adolescents. In addition, parents can help their teen by confronting self-defeating behaviors and thoughts by pointing out their positive attributes and value. Parents may need to prompt their teen to eat, sleep, exercise, and perform basic hygiene tasks on a daily basis. Doing these daily routines can dramatically help improve mood. Try to direct the teen to hang out with positive peers. Steer them away from other depressed adolescents. Explore underlying feelings of anger, hurt, and loss. Even the smallest loss of a friend or pet can intensify feelings of sadness. Allow the teen to talk, draw, or journal about their feelings without judgment. And for suicidal teens, make a “no-harm” contract for 24 to 48 hours at a time when they will not hurt themselves.
With proper care and treatment, depression can be alleviated and suicidal behaviors prevented. Parents and teen may even find a new, deeper relationship developing between them as they work through the dark feelings of depression.
National Institute of Mental Health Web Site. “Children and Depression: A Fact Sheet for Physicians.” (2001) http://www.nimh.nih.gov/publicat/depchildresfact.cfm