When we think of children, we often imagine mischievous tiny tots. We picture them giggling, their innocent, happy faces with not a trace of worry. If at all we see a child glum, we do not imagine the reason to be depression. After all, what could a child possibly have to be stressed or anxious about? When we think of teenagers, we imagine older children who are fun-loving and happy-go-lucky. This attitude of theirs is often an adult’s envy. So, if at all we see a teenager unhappy, we simply associate it with the mood swings caused by their adolescent hormones. Seldom do we think children or teenagers are even capable of suffering from depression.
Horrendous as it sounds, individuals could spiral down into the abyss of depression even in their early years. A study conducted by the Massachusetts Association for Mental Health shows that the deadly mental illness does not even spare three year olds. Contrary to the prevalent idea that they are developmentally immature to experience depressive symptoms, children display the same symptoms as adults when depressed, it states. They may appear lethargic and lazy. They may suddenly lose interest in activities that once interested them. Eventually, they may become anti-social and/or aggressive. Prone to excessive guilt, some begin to contemplate death, and even attempt suicide.
Depression is an abyss that even adults struggle to get out of. How then, can a child or a teenager cope? Of course, there are plenty of options available to treat children/teenagers suffering from depression. Clinical psychologist Tishya Mahindru Sahani cites psychotherapy, cognitive behavioural therapy, interpersonal therapy and medication as some of the options. “Initially psychotherapy is administered. Eventually anti-depressant medications are added only if there is no improvement,” she says.
Soulveda thus explores various causes of depression in children and teenagers. With these in mind, parents can keep an eye out for tell-tale signs of depression in their young ones. And by keeping the channels of communication open, they can get the children the help they need and gently guide them out of the darkness.
It is common knowledge that several mental illnesses such as autism, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia run in the family. Many researchers speculate that depression too could be hereditary. But, as of now, studies have not been able to isolate the responsible gene conclusively. Nevertheless, a study by Stanford University speculates that around 50% of depression cases could be a result of genetic factors. It goes on to state that if the parents or siblings have been affected by major depression, then the child is two or three times more prone to developing the condition.
Flawed parenting and mentoring
A child or a teen often spends most of their time at home or school. It is there that the foundation for the rest of their lives is laid. This is why the role of parents and teachers can make or break a child’s attitude and personality. Unfortunately, there are a few common mistakes which we as parents or teachers often make, that affect a child psychologically. “For instance, we may have inadvertently neglected children or physically / verbally abused them. Other times, we may have compared them with their peers. Each of this results in children developing low self-esteem and anxiety, and in some cases depression,” says Mahindru.
Children and teens exposed to frequent family fights are always anxious and on guard because they never feel safe. They feel embarrassed to talk about it to outsiders and hence isolate themselves from their social circles.
Besides the pressure to excel academically and fit in with their peers, many children and teens often have to cope with the trauma brought about by bullies. A research conducted by US-based journal JAMA Psychiatry states: “Children who were bullied frequently when they were eight years old are more likely to develop a psychiatric disorder that needs treatment as an adult, compared with kids who were not bullied.” Such children often display low self-esteem and depressive symptoms. They may also be at an increased risk for suicidal tendencies.
Software professional Prashant Balachandran recalls how he was bullied during his childhood. A typical studious boy, he was singled out by a group of his classmates and was often beaten up. “Luckily, my parents were very understanding,” he says. “They put me in Karate classes so that I could learn self-defence. This gave me the physical and mental courage to stand up for myself. I learnt to defend myself and that put the bullies in their place,” he shares. Thankfully, Prashant did not get bogged down by the experience. With the help of his parents, he managed to face the bullies head on and come out stronger.
Crushes and infatuations
As children enter their adolescence, they start experiencing sexual attraction. This leads to infatuation. However, just like it is with adults, teenage love may not always end well. Experiencing rejection or heartbreak for the first time in their lives can flummox teenagers. In many cases, it can lead to major anxiety and depression.
Lavanya (name changed), now a homemaker, recalls how unrequited love became a major source of depression for her when she was in high school. “It took me several years of therapy before I could get over it and open my mind to the possibility of a new relationship,” she admits.
Life is not always a bed of roses. No couple is a hundred percent compatible. But often, arguments and ego clashes explode in front of the children. The alarming divorce rates and the tedious legalities involved in getting one further worsens the situation. According to a study conducted by the US-based organisation Domestic Violence Roundtable, children and teens exposed to frequent family fights are always anxious and on guard because they never feel safe. Many a time, they do not have an adult to emotionally support them through this phase. They feel embarrassed to talk about it to outsiders and hence isolate themselves from their social circles.
The study further states that in some cases, children learn to become abusive just like their parents. They begin to believe that conflict is an effective way to solve problems. In any case, the long-term risk is that these children could develop depression or pick up self-destructive habits such as drugs and alcohol in their adult life.
Drugs and Substance addiction
Addiction is a prevailing issue amongst teenagers. Unable to deal with anxiety and stress, many of them resort to drugs and alcohol. While some successfully kick the habit, either by self-restraint or with the help of therapy, many continue to fight a losing battle.
According to a study conducted by the US-based National Institute on Drug Abuse, “While drug abuse often begins during adolescence, the ground for substance abuse is prepared much earlier, by circumstances and events that affect the child during the first several years of life and even before birth.” The study has found out that providing a stable home, healthy food, good parenting and an enriching school environment in the early years of a child’s life helps them develop self-confidence and self-restraint. Such children are less likely to use drugs upon reaching adolescence.