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Depression in Children and Teens: Early Recognition and Treatment Can Save Lives

Are you worried about your child or teen? Mental health problems are not uncommon in children and adolescents. How do you know if your child may need  help? There are contributing factors to mental health problems that include: loss, grief, discrimination, bullying or alienation from school, violence, abuse or family difficulties like separation or divorce.

What can parents do? Parenting and being part of a family are important to the mental health and well being of children and young people. You may not realize it but you already support your adolescent's mental health and well being by: showing your affection, interest and care for them, encouraging them to talk about their feelings and to work out problems even when it's difficult, comfort them when they are stressed or anxious, spend time with them, take part in activities together, be aware of their needs and differences at different stages of development, provide consistent care and avoid erratic or harsh discipline. Spend time individually with each child, try not to involve children in arguments that are not involving them, and seek help early if your teen is experiencing difficulty.

By learning more about depression, you'll know what to look for in your child or teenager. Did you know that: Suicide is the third leading cause of death for young people between the ages of 15-24. Depression is a medical illness, just like cancer or diabetes. Clinical depression is not just the "blues" and lasts longer that a couple of weeks. A teen can't talk himself out of it. Your child isn't weak. Depression affects the whole body- thoughts, feelings, behavior, physical health, appearance and all areas of a person's life- home, school and social life. Depression can be treated successfully like other illnesses.

Depression is triggered by a complex combination of genetic, psychological and environmental factors. Genetic factors mean that in some families, depression is inherited or passed down through genes. Psychological makeup has to do with personality traits, and environmental factors are life circumstances.

Anyone can get depression, even children. Depression affects more than 20 million people living in the US each year.  It is important to recognize signs of depression in our children and teens. Depression affects thinking- she may not be able to think clearly or rationally, or may believe that she can't be helped. When severe, it can cause thoughts of hopelessness and helplessness. Early recognition and treatment of depression can save lives. Depression as well as other mental health illness including bipolar disorder, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia all need the attention of a mental health professional for correct diagnosis and treatment.

Depression is one of the most misdiagnosed and misunderstood illnesses today. First step is to visit a doctor. Symptoms of depression include: Mood Disturbance:  Feeling sad, empty or numb, Feeling hopeless, helpless and/or worthless, Loss of interest, motivation or pleasure, Irritability or crankiness, constantly critical or complaining. Physical Symptoms: Change in appetite, change in sleep patterns, fatigue or loss of energy, physical slowing of speech, movement and/or thinking or observable pacing or restlessness. Other symptoms include: physical pains, such as headaches, stomachaches, backaches, aches in legs and arms that aren't caused by some other medical condition.  Use of drugs or alcohol to mask or escape feelings.

Depression Affects Thoughts too. This may include symptoms such as: lowered self esteem and self confidence, poor concentration or indecisiveness, thoughts of death or suicide. In 86% of cases, a combination of anti-depressant medication and therapy works to treat depression. People with depression can be helped! Your child can feel good again. A physical from a doctor is important to rule out any other illness that may have similar symptoms as depression.

Your child may be depressed but not suicidal. However it is important to always watch for warning signs of suicide, just in case your son or daughter may be having suicidal thoughts. Warning Signs of Suicide:Talking about wanting to die or kill oneself, looking for a way to kill oneself, searching online or buying a gun, talking about feeling hopeless or having not reason to live, talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain, talking about being a burden to others, increasing use of alcohol or drugs, acting anxious or agitated, behaving recklessly, sleeping too little or too much, withdrawing or feeling isolated, showing rage or talking about seeking revenge, displaying extreme mood swings. (Warning signs listed derived from an expert panel review as of 12/10/10). 

Other signs include: visiting or calling people to say goodbye, giving away items, organizing bedroom or locker for "one last time", previous attempts. Or verbal clues: "I shouldn't be here" "I'm going to run away", "I wish I were dead", "I wish I could disappear forever".

Know what you can do before your child shows symptoms or signs: Know the warning signs of youth depression and suicide. Believe your child could be thinking about suicide. 1 in 5 high school students considers suicide during high school. Find out how to get mental health care through your health care provider before there may an emergency. If you don't have insurance find out about free or low cost services in your community.

If you child shows signs of thinking about suicide, remember the ABC's:

A: Ask your child if he is feeling depressed or thinking about ending his life. Talking to them won't cause your child to attempt or put the idea in his mind. Instead it may provide your child with a sense of relief.

B: Believe your child if he says he is thinking of suicide. However, even if your child denies being suicidal, your child may still be if the signs of depression and suicide are present.

C: Call a mental health professional immediately, if you think your child is suffering from depression. If your child is suicidal call 911 or take her to the nearest emergency room. Hospitals have trained mental health specialists who will assess for risk. Don't leave your child alone for a minutes. Your child may be having a life-threatening emergency.

D: Don't give up on your child. Your child is ill and needs your help. He may be irritable or unpleasant- these are effects of your child's illness. Healthy young people are not irritable or unpleasant the majority of the time. Get your child the health care needed.


Hotlines: National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255

Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance: 1-800-826-3632

Mental Health America: 1-800-969-6642

(Information above from the booklet: Parents As Partners: A Suicide Prevention Guide for Parents put out by SAVE. www.save.org    To order booklets on depression or this one visit their site.)

SEEK HELP by contacting a mental health provider or calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.  Go on line and visit such sites as: www.afsp.org (American Foundation for Suicide Prevention)  www.save.org  (Suicide Awareness Voices of Education) and www.sptsnj.org  (Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide- great parent section including a film clip, Not My Kid).

 Remember:  Asking for help does not mean we are weak or incompetent. It usually indicates an advanced level of honesty and intelligence.
Anne Wilson Schaef

(973) 985-4503