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You are here: Home > Toddlers > Toddler Health

Children and Depression

by Deborah Gray |
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Introduction

A few years ago, my mother unearthed some pictures of me as a baby which I had never seen before. One showed me at about eight months old, crawling on the grass of Golden Gate Park. I was looking directly at the camera, my tongue sticking out of the corner of my mouth, and I was laughing. My face was lit from within, and looked happy, confident and even a little mischievious.

I was absolutely transfixed by that photograph for days. I would continually take it out of my wallet and stare at it, torn between laughter and tears. For a while I couldn't figure out what it was about the picture that drew me. Finally it hit me; this was the only picture of myself as a child that I had seen which showed me laughing. All the photos I had ever seen depicted a child staring solemnly or smiling diffidently, but never laughing. I looked at the Golden Gate Park picture and wished that I had remained that happy, and that depression had not taken away my childhood.

When I first was diagnosed with depression in 1990, I discussed my childhood with my doctor. Although it is hard to diagnose a child twenty years in the past, it seemed clear to both of us that I had suffered from dysthymia (mild, long-term depression) probably from the time I was a small child. I read up on children and depression and wished futilely that I had been diagnosed years ago.

While I was studying to be a teacher a few years ago, I gave a presentation on childhood depression to my classmates, many of whom had been teachers for years. I was saddened, although not surprised, by the number of them who told me after class that they had no idea children could suffer from depression. Although many myths and misunderstandings surround adult depression, even more surround childhood depression, and these people who dealt with children for hours each day knew no more about the topic than anyone else.

Misconceptions About Children and Depression

One of the most common responses to hearing that a child has depression is, "But what does he/she have to be depressed about?" This statement reveals two major misconceptions. One is the lack of understanding about clinical depression. It is not the same as the "blues" or "down" moods that everyone has from time to time, which may actually be caused by unhappiness with one's job, home life or other factors. Clinical depression may resemble these emotional dips, but it is much more pervasive, long-lasting, and life-threatening. It is not necessarily caused by an event or state of affairs in a child's life. The other misconception is that childhood is a carefree, trouble-free period in our lives. How many people can say that they didn't worry about peer acceptance, grades, or parental expectations? Adults often forget that children are powerless and have no control over their own lives. This can be a frightening and frustrating state of affairs to live through day after day.

Causes of Childhood Depression

As with adult depression, diagnosis of depression in children is not as clear-cut as it is for other ailments. There is no test that can be given which will positively say that an individual has depression, much less pinpoint the cause(s). The medical community still knows relatively little about the brain, how it works, and what makes it malfunction. In fact, anti-depressant properties of certain medications were discovered by accident in the 1950s while seeking a cure for tuberculosis.

We do know that certain children have risk factors in their lives which could predispose them to depression or could "trigger" depression. Among these are a family history of mental illness or suicide, abuse (physical, emotional or sexual), chronic illness and the loss of a parent at an early age to death, divorce or abandonment. However, some infants exhibit depressive symptoms at an early age before most of these factors come into play, so there is an argument to be made for depression being wholly chemical in some children. Each child's depression is individual, and causes will be different for each one. The depression could be wholly chemical, wholly due to psychological factors, or a combination of the two. More important than the cause is identifying the illness and treating it.

Symptoms of Depression in Children >>


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