We all feel sad from time to time. It is a normal and appropriate response to disappointment and loss. But how do you tell whether your child or teen is experiencing normal sadness or suffering from clinical (or major) depression that may need expert help?
Telling the difference can be difficult as the symptoms of depression can be different in children and teens from adults. In young children, it may express itself by being excessively clingy, frequently crying, expressing fear that they or others will die, losing interest in toys or friends, losing interest in school or refusing to go, frequent headaches, stomachaches or feeling sick.
In older children and teens, along with many of those symptoms can come others like withdrawal and social isolation. Other symptoms can be a lack of energy, extreme boredom, inability to concentrate or communicate, loss of friends, or lack of desire to see friends. Changes in patterns of eating and sleeping (either too much or too little) are common signs, as is being unable to get out of bed or off the couch. If your teen has previously been involved in sports and hobbies, depression may show up as an inability to enjoy or partake in activities that used to bring pleasure. Also common are feelings of excessive regret, guilt and remorse and increased irritability, aggression and hostility, as well as extreme sensitivity to rejection, criticism or failure. Sometimes untreated anxiety can turn into depression when the child or youth feels overwhelmed by their fears. One or two such symptoms usually aren’t enough to make a diagnosis, but a pattern of sadness or loss of interests or pleasure combined with three or four such symptoms extending over two weeks or longer is more suggestive of clinical depression.
For parents, some of these symptoms can seem at times like normal teenage angst, lack of motivation or even misbehaviour. In fact, up until about two decades ago, it was thought that depression was primarily an adult disorder that rarely affected children or teens.
Now we know much better. Depression is a serious mental health issue that affects about two per cent of BC children and adolescents every year.
The risk of experiencing an episode of depression rises with age and with family history. While sometimes depression comes seemingly out of the blue, it can also be triggered in susceptible youth (with a genetic predisposition or with low self-esteem, perfectionist tendencies, for example) by trauma, anxiety, guilt or regret, or the death of a loved one or other significant loss.
On its own, depression is bad enough, but its hopelessness and despair, with the inability to see a brighter future, can also lead to suicide, which is the second leading cause of death among 15-24 year olds.
If your child seems to be showing symptoms of depression, talk to your family doctor, a mental health professional or the mental health clinicians through the Ministry of Children and Family Development (MCFD).Call Service BC at 1-800-663-7867 to find the MCFD office nearest to you. Their experts will screen for depression and help your child access treatment. For youth with suicidal thoughts, call the B.C. youth crisis line 1-800-suicide, visit youthinbc.ca to chat with a counsellor in real time, or go to the emergency department of your nearest hospital.