What is it?
It is normal for children and youth to sometimes feel sad, down or to be in a bad mood from time to time. These feelings usually disappear fairly soon. But a low mood that lasts for more than a few weeks and makes it hard for a child or youth to function at school, with friends or in their daily lives can be a sign of depression.
Depression is a type of mood disorder. The main sign of depression is when a child or youth is sad or irritable for a few weeks or longer. Other signs and symptoms are: negative thinking, changes in appetite or sleep, and loss of enjoyment in activities.
It can be hard for parents, caregivers and other adults to know if a child has depression because it can show up in different ways. It is important to know that depression is a treatable condition.
What Causes Depression?
There is no single cause of depression and often it is due to a combination of things:
- Genetics - A child or youth is more likely to have depression if there is a history of depression in parents or siblings. Depression often runs in families.
- Environmental factors - If a child or youth experience stress, loss, violence, neglect, abuse or poverty, they are more likely to have depression.
- Psychological vulnerability - Children with low self-esteem, poor coping skills or a negative outlook can have a harder time dealing with their moods.
- Comorbidities - Some disorders can cause or complicate depression, for example: anxiety disorders, learning disorders, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), eating disorders or significant defiance behaviours.
- Stressors - Problems with school, friends, bullying, or extracurricular activities may be associated with depression.
- Biological - Children and youth with medical conditions such as anemia or thyroid problems can have the same symptoms as the symptoms for depression. Some conditions such as chronic pain may increase the risk of developing depression.
How do I know?
A health care professional can give your child or youth a screen or test for depression. The screen is made up of a number of questions. Many of the signs and symptoms of depression can be a normal part of a child or youth's growth and development. It is the whole picture that helps separate depression from feelings and behaviours that are normal and age appropriate. If a child or youth does in fact have depression, the symptoms can range from mild to severe. The behaviour of depressed children and youth may differ from that of depressed adults. Usually children and youth with depression will have a significant change in their ability to function in school and other places.
Children with depression may:
- have problems with thinking, concentrating or making decisions
- have negative thoughts about most things
- think life is not worth living
- have trouble seeing their own positive qualities and be too critical of their achivements
- blame themselves for events that are not their fault
- feel sad, unhappy or have low mood most of the time
- feel angry or irritated most of the time
- feel hopeless and think that things will not get better in the future
- feel helpless and think that everything is unfair
- feel like a disappointment or burden to others
- lose interest or enjoyment in activities
- feel guilty
- constantly feel numb, bored or empty
- be unhappy even when good things happen
- be very sensitive to rejection or failure
- often cry or be tearful
- be absent from school often or not perform as well
- have a major change in eating or sleeping patterns
- have a major change in hygiene or appearance
- seem agitated and wring their hands, pace or fidget
- speak or move more slowly than usual
- argue or start fights more often
- withdraw from family and friends
- take part in risky behaviours
- use alcohol, substances or self-injury to try and feel better
- lose or gain weight
- sleep more or less than usual
- have unexplained physical symptoms, pains or complaints
What can go along with depression?
Children with depression can also experience other mental health challenges at the same time. This can affect their symptoms, ability to function and treatment options. Some mental health challenges that can exist alongside depression include:
Dealing with these challenges can help with the depression. If children or youth develop these challenges, it is important to reach out for help early so you, your child and your family can have all the support you need.
What can be done?
There are many ways to help your child. Depression is one of the most treatable mental illnesses. You can take steps at home to help your child start to feel better. By reading this you have already begun to help and support your child.
Ways to help your child or youth with depression at home:
- Take your child's concerns seriously. Find a regular time to listen to their feelings without interruption (car rides, an evening walk together, making a meal together).
- You don't always have to agree, but it's important to acknowledge their feelings and experiences as valid for them.
- Keep the door open. Children and youth often pick their own times to share, so no matter how distant or irritable a child may seem, make sure they know you are ready to listen.
- Don't give up if at first they shut you out. Your child may feel embarrassed or it may be difficult to open up about their feelings.
- Don't expect too much. Depression often affects how a child performs at school and in other activities.
- Make sure you have your own support system so you are able to continue supporting your child.
- Help you child with self-care. Encourage your child to make positive changes but remember depression can make it hard for your child to get going. Start small:
- Sleep - getting enough quality sleep on a regular basis.
- Physical activity - help your child find an activity to enjoy such as walking, swimming, yoga or going to the gym. Support them to do some physical activity every day if possible. You may need to do the activity with them until they start to benefit and become motivated.
- Nature - research shows that being out in nature is an easy way to improve mood and symptoms of depression.
- Light - being exposed to daylight for at least 30 minutes a day can improve mood, especially in long winter months.
- Nutrition - a healthy diet can also help reduce the symptoms of depression.
- Get help from a doctor or counsellor if your child is not getting better, has suicidal thoughts or appears to have a substance use problem.
Additional treatment options
The treatment team may include your child's pediatrician, family doctor, psychiatrist or a mental health counsellor. The treatment plan will depend upon how severe the depression is, what your child and family prefer, and what you are able to access.
- psychotherapy (sometimes called counselling or talk therapy)
- pharmacotherapy (medication)
Psychotherapy: is often used alone if the depression is milder. It may be combined with medication for more moderate to severe depression. Psychotherapy treatment is usually 10-15 sessions and can be done one-on-one or in a group setting. There is good evidence for the effectiveness of psychotherapy as a treatment for depression youth. Some common types of therapy for depression include:
Medication: children and youth with moderate to severe depression are often treated with medication as well as psychotherapy. These medications may help the child or youth start to feel better within a few weeks but full benefits can take up to two to three months. It may take time to find the right dose or even the right medication for your child.
Where to from here?
Talk to your doctor and get help from a mental health professional by:
- Getting a mental health assessment and support through your local Child and Youth Mental Health team (through a walk-in intake clinic in your community).
- Contacting your Employee Assistance Plan (EAP), if you have this option through your work.
- Contacting a private psychologist or counsellor.
For additional information about options for support and treatment in BC, visit our interactive ‘Ask Kelty Mental Health’ tool, where you can type in the questions you have about accessing services and supports.