Helping Kids Who Face Depression
The percentage may be small, but anyone who cares about a son, daughter, niece or nephew realizes that when young people face depression and anxiety, it can make adults who care feel powerless to help.
“Clinical studies show that about 2 percent of school-aged kids face these conditions. In adolescents, 8-9 percent of that population will likely face some form of clinical depression,” said Avera Medical Group pediatric and adolescent psychiatrist Bryce Gammeter, MD. “It occurs in similar rates for both boys and girls in the younger population, but when puberty begins, the ratio shifts. We’ll see it more commonly in females. The ratio is about 3-to-1 females to males.”
The Signs in Kids are Different
When kids face depression and anxiety, their responses differ greatly from those we might see in adults.
“Kids won’t be melancholic or present with suicidal thoughts or actions,” he said. “Instead they are likely to complain of ‘tummy’ or headaches. They may be more irritable, have low frustration tolerance and act out in school.”
Other signs, such as withdrawing from things they once enjoyed, increased absences from school and declining grades also may indicate clinical depression. Reckless behavior may be more common, too.
“Parents who are in touch with their kids really can tell. They will see the once-happy child become more dour or angry,” he said. “Depression can begin due to a stressful event, such as a divorce or death in the family. That happens most commonly with younger children.”
When It May Happen
Gammeter said that depression and anxiety can appear in children who are as young as 6, full biological depressive episodes are most common in junior high-aged children.
“During junior high years is when we usually see the first significant episodes. Clinical studies that go back to the 1940s show that as a society, American psychiatrists are diagnosing more cases of depression. The severity of cases also has increased in the same timeframe,” said Gammeter. “Our perspectives continue to evolve. In fact, until 1975 many clinicians thought it was impossible for school-aged kids to have depression.”
Methods to Help
Behavioral health professionals often find the most success in treating depression in young people by using cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and antidepressant medications. Since every child and patient differs, sometimes the combination of the two approaches has the most positive effect. Some kids respond better to the use of one approach by itself.
“Studies have proven that the synergy of these two elements – CBT and medication – works. Children who receive this combination of treatment are two to three times more likely to have relief and recovery than kids who do not receive it,” said Gammeter. “Since the use of antidepressant drugs became more widespread in the 1990s, the overall rate of teen suicide has decreased.”
Children who take selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) to treat depression often do so for a period of about two years, Gammeter said.
“The use of these drugs for a defined period can lessen the recurrence of major depressive episodes by as much as 40 percent,” he said. “Every patient should have an opportunity to come off them, such as during a summer. Their use under medical supervision and with counseling can lead to big improvements in quality of life for kids who face depression.”
Starting the Conversation
“A New Norm,” is a book newly published by Avera and Children’s Home Society. It was written as a tool that can help children, adolescents and even adults who face depression and related mental health conditions.
Its story and illustrations can serve as a meaningful conversation starting point within families, youth groups and classrooms.
Learn more or to order a book.