Although it’s difficult to figure out when a child could be diagnosed with depression, some research notes that children as young as seven can be depressed.
“Depression can look different in children and teens compared to adults,” says Dr. Seena Grewal, staff psychiatrist and head of the inpatient mental health unit at The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto.
“In younger children, it may show itself as irritability, crying episodes, temper tantrums, refusing to go to school, or even physical symptoms like stomach pains. Teenagers, because they are more able to express themselves verbally, may talk about thoughts of suicide or feelings of worthlessness.”
The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health notes 75 per cent of children with mental disorders are unable to access treatment options, and between the years of 2013 and 2014, five per cent of emergency department visits for children and youth five to 24 in Canada were for mental health disorders.
For parents and guardians, Grewal says there are eight key things to look out for:
- Low or irritable mood
- Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, or hopelessness
- Losing interest in things they used to enjoy
- Isolating themselves or withdrawing from others
- Changes in sleep — either sleeping less or sleeping more
- Changes in appetite — often a decrease in appetite but sometimes an increase
- Having trouble concentrating or becoming more forgetful — this can lead to changes in performance at school
- Expressing thoughts about suicide or self-harming
“Talking with your child and letting them know you are interested in how they are feeling is key,” she explains. “It can feel overwhelming sometimes to try to figure out how to help someone who is struggling with depression so making sure you connect them clinicians who can provide treatment is an important step.”
The Anxiety and Depression Association of America adds there are two types of depression in children.
“Major depression lasts at least two weeks and may occur more than once throughout your child’s life. Your child may experience major depression after a traumatic event, such as the death of a relative or friend. Dysthymia is a less severe but chronic form of depression that lasts for at least two years,” the site notes.
She adds what research has shown is early intervention can help young people later in life. It also helps when parents do their homework. “If you are having any struggles with your own mood, getting help for yourself can make you even more able to support your child. Becoming educated about depression in children and teens is helpful.”
But at some point, parents should also consider speaking to a professional, especially if your child’s mood stops them from going to school or even spending time with their friends.
“Often a good place to start is your family doctor who can assess the mood and help determine what next steps to take,” she explains. “If a young person has told you they have a plan for suicide you should be taking them to the nearest emergency department for an assessment.”
Tips for parents on coping
Parents should keep in mind when a child is depressed, they can almost become a different person.
“It may come across that they are not interested in your support or that they want to be left alone but that is often the influence of depression,” she says. “They may need a lot of encouragement to do activities that you think would be easy to do.”
If your child is having a hard time completing a task, for example, don’t give up — encourage them to keep trying.
“Even if something feels difficult on one day it’s important to keep trying to help them, whether it’s practising a coping strategy, doing something they enjoy, or even talking to you in the moment about how they are feeling.”
And for all parents, experts note, it could also be helpful to start being open about mental health at home.
“There’s no one right way to talk to children and teens about mental health or depression and what is important is that you do talk to them about how they are feeling,” she continued. “Providing them with a safe space to disclose how they are feeling and being available to listen to what they are saying is important.”
Reassure them that you are there to support them, even if you don’t know the answers to their questions.
Where to get help
If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs help, resources are available. In case of an emergency, please call 911 for immediate help.
The Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention, Depression Hurts and Kids Help Phone 1-800-668-6868 all offer ways of getting help if you, or someone you know, may be suffering from mental health issues.