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Is My Child Too Young to be Depressed?

When we think about children, we visualize happy, spontaneous beings full of boundless energy, laughter, silliness and curiosity. For many of us, it is difficult to imagine young children with depression. So how young is too young to be diagnosed with depression? Unfortunately, there is no concrete answer.
According to the New York Times Magazine article, “Can Preschoolers be Depressed?” by Pamela Paul, August 25, 2010, “Today a number of child psychiatrists and developmental psychologists say depression can surface in children as young as 2 or 3.” These theories have garnered opposition, sparking significant controversy. Some mental health professionals question whether preschoolers have the developmental capacity to be diagnosed and labeled with depression. Emotional development and behaviors change frequently throughout childhood, making it difficult to determine if a child’s “acting out”, sadness, frequent crying jags, or anger are due to growth phases or depression.
The World Health Organization cites that, “major depressive disorder is the leading cause of disability among Americans age 15 to 44.” Even though the risk for developing depression is much greater when a child becomes a teenager, it is important to look for signs of depression in your child, throughout their childhood. Some common symptoms of depression include:

  • Withdrawing Socially
  • Oversensitivity to Rejection
  • Poor Performance in School
  • Low Self Esteem/Feelings of Worthlessness
  • Feelings of Guilt
  • Sleep and Appetite Changes
  • Loss of Interest in Activities/Boredom
  • Frequent Complaints of Stomach Aches or Headaches
  • Profound Sadness
  • Acting out/Anger/Irritability

If your child exhibits any of these symptoms for a few weeks or longer, approach their teacher(s) to gain additional information. Is your child showing the same signs of depression while in school? How is their academic performance? How does your child relate with their fellow classmates?  The next step is scheduling a visit to your child’s pediatrician or family doctor to discuss your concerns. In addition to screening for depression, the doctor may also ask questions about recent life events, family history of psychiatric illness, the home environment, and your child’s physical health. If depression is suspected, the pediatrician or family doctor will refer you and your child to a child psychiatrist or psychologist for a thorough evaluation so treatment, if needed, can start as soon as possible.
Depression and mental health research has come a long way over the decades. Treatment options include counseling, medications, and lifestyle changes.  When identified, depression, like so many other medical illnesses, can be successfully treated, maximizing the quality of life for the very young, the very old, and every age in between. To learn more, visit The National Institute of Mental Health website at www.nimh.nih.gov or The National Alliance on Mental Illness at www.nami.org

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