Childhood depression: may be more than a passing phase

OKEECHOBEE — How often have we looked at the past through rose-colored glasses, reminiscing back to the days of childhood as a time of freedom and ease? We recall with fondness the joy of holidays, the excitement of school field trips, and the simple adventures of zipping down a warm metal slide or hanging from monkey bars with bended knees. Often, those tinted lenses blur the memories of times and trials less pleasing to recall, filtering away the angst and misunderstandings of adolescence like an Instagram filter on steroids.

While we may prefer to remember the happier times of our development — such idealizing can keep us from remembering or accepting the difficulties children truly face.

We often hear comments negating the feelings of children as being silly and irrelevant. We underestimate the effect that trauma and chemical imbalances can have on the growing mind of a child and pin their sadness, disinterest, and lack of motivation on laziness, moping, and puppy love gone awry — ultimately giving their emotions less reverence than those of adults.

Sometimes, though, feelings of sadness and discontent in childhood are more than just a passing phase.

Nationwide, over 20 percent of youth ages 13-18 live with a mental health disorder. (National Institute of Mental Health) Anxiety and depression affect children on a daily basis and the numbers are only increasing.

With the rollercoaster of emotional and hormonal changes experienced throughout adolescence, childhood depression can often be overlooked. There are a variety of signs and symptoms attributed to depression in children and young adults and if you believe you or your child fit these descriptions, it is best to speak with your doctor. Some of the most notable traits of depression in children include: feelings of sadness, hopelessness or worthlessness; difficulty with concentrating, making decisions or maintaining grades; physical complaints such as headaches, stomach aches, lack of energy, sleep problems and significant weight or appetite changes; and behavioral shifts like restlessness, irritability, constantly wanting to be alone, dropping out of activities like sports or clubs, and drinking or using drugs.

Just as there are multiple symptoms of depression, multiple causes have been identified as well. It is difficult for scientists and medical professionals to single out one precise cause or another, because depression is a complex medical disorder that often stems from a combination of different factors. Biological differences often exist in those who have been diagnosed with depression, appearing as physical differences in both the brain’s chemistry and structure. Genetics also play a role in the cause of depression and other mental illnesses, increasing the risk of both children and adults with a family history of mental health disorders developing one themselves. Additionally, hormonal changes and imbalances, like those sometimes arising in adolescence and early adulthood, can be attributed for such a diagnosis. Along with these biological factors, depression can be caused by a group of environmental impacts known as Adverse Childhood Experiences or ACEs. These experiences are defined by the Substance Abuse Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) as “Stressful or traumatic events including abuse and neglect.

They may also include household dysfunction such as witnessing domestic violence or growing up with family members who have substance use disorders.”

As with many other medical conditions, the root of depression may lay dormant and unnoticed for years. It is often when triggered by one or more additional risk factors that the symptoms of this disease usually begin presenting themselves — acting as a springboard for the many changes in mood and behavior that accompany childhood depression. Some of these risk factors include: self-esteem lowering conditions such as obesity, learning disorders and long-term bullying; living with a physical disability, chronic illness or additional mental health disorder; personal alcohol or substance abuse or dependency; and being an LGBTQ youth in an unsupportive environment.

For a child diagnosed with depression, treatment is vital and available in a variety of modes to best fit each unique situation. Counseling, medication, and other therapies exist to provide aide to children and families through these trying times. Suicide is the third leading cause of death for children and youth ages ten through twenty-four and with ninety percent of suicide victims being known to have a mental health disorder (NIMH), prevention through treatment is key.

No matter their origin or symptoms, depression and other mental health disorders should never be treated as a source of shame; likewise, they are also not the punchline of a joke or an insult to be hurled out of anger. Views in this country and around the world are changing and an understanding and acceptance of mental illness is slowly but surely beginning to emerge.

If you believe you or your child are suffering from depression or other mental illness, reach out to someone. Ask your doctor, a school counselor, or social worker on how to take the next step. Depression is a treatable condition that exists in every corner of the world. It is a trial, but one that can be endured with the right help. It is not the end of your story.

Jane Kaufman is the Okeechobee System of Care Family Coordinator.

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