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Understanding Depression

Your daughter spends more time in her room than usual, with the door closed and the shades drawn. She sleeps a lot, and even the family dog can't make her smile anymore. She has stopped hanging out with her friends, and when you ask what's going on, she just mumbles.

Normal teen behavior? Not really. There's more here than meets the eye, something that's telling you things are not right.

It's possible that your child is depressed. In the United States, depression is the most common mental health disorder, affecting 17 million people of all age groups, races, and economic backgrounds each year. As many as one in every 33 children may have depression; in adolescents, that number may be as high as one in eight. If you suspect that your child is depressed, you'll want to learn more about what depression is, what causes it, and what you can do if your child is depressed.

What Is Depression?
Depression isn't just bad moods and occasional melancholy. It's not just feeling down or sad, either. These feelings are normal in children, especially during adolescence. Even when major disappointments and setbacks make people feel sad and angry, the negative feelings usually lessen with time. But when a depressive state, or mood, lingers for a long time - weeks, months, or even longer - and it limits a child's ability to function normally, it can be diagnosed as depression.

Two types of depression, major depression and dysthymia, can affect children. Major depression is characterized by a persistent sad mood and the inability to feel pleasure or happiness. A child with major depression feels depressed for most of the day, almost every day.

If the sadness is not as severe but continues for a year or longer, the condition may be dysthymia.

Bipolar disorder is another type of mood disturbance and is characterized by episodes of low-energy depression (sadness and hopelessness) and high-energy mania (irritability and explosive temper).

What Causes Depression?
Depression usually isn't caused by one event or thing; it's the result of one or more factors, and its causes vary from child to child. Depression can be caused by lowered levels of neurotransmitters (chemicals that carry signals through the nervous system) in the brain, which limits a person's ability to feel good. Depression can run in families, so a child who has a close relative with depression may be more likely to experience it herself.

Significant life events such as the death of a loved one, a divorce, a move to a new area, and even a breakup with a girlfriend or boyfriend can bring on symptoms of depression. Stress also can be a factor, and because the adolescent years can be a time of emotional and social turmoil, things that are difficult for anyone to handle can be devastating to a teen.

Also, chronic illness can lead to depression, as can the side effects of certain medicines or infections.

Diagnosing Depression
Depressed children have described themselves as feeling hopeless about everything or feeling that nothing is worth the effort. They honestly believe that they are "no good" and that they're helpless to do anything about it.

But for an accurate diagnosis of major depression to be made, a more detailed clinical evaluation must be done. A medical or mental health professional (such as a psychologist or psychiatrist) must be sure that your child has had five or more of the following symptoms for more than 2 weeks:

  • a feeling of being down in the dumps or really sad for no reason
  • a lack of energy, feeling unable to do the simplest task
  • an inability to enjoy the things that used to bring pleasure
  • a lack of desire to be with friends or family members
  • feelings of irritability, anger, or anxiety
  • an inability to concentrate
  • a marked weight gain or loss (or failure to gain weight as expected), and little or too much interest in eating
  • a significant change in sleep habits, such as trouble falling asleep or getting up
  • feelings of guilt or worthlessness
  • aches and pains even though nothing is physically wrong
  • a lack of caring about what happens in the future
  • frequent thoughts about death or suicide

A child who has dysthymia must experience two or more of the following symptoms almost all the time for at least 1 year:

  • feelings of hopelessness
  • low self-esteem
  • sleeping too much or being unable to sleep
  • extreme fatigue
  • difficulty concentrating
  • lack of appetite or overeating

Depressed children and teens are more likely to use alcohol and drugs than those who aren't depressed. Because these substances can momentarily allow a child to forget about her depression, they seem like perfect "fixes." But they don't fix anything; in fact, they can make the depressed child feel even worse.


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