Children & Depression

While we may think of low mood or other challenges as adult problems, they can affect people at any age. Children and teens can experience mental illnesses like depression. Sometimes it can be difficult for adults to understand how difficult children’s problems can be because we look at their problems through adult eyes. But the pressures of growing up can be very hard for some children. It’s important that we remind ourselves that while their problems may seem unimportant to us, they can feel overwhelming to young people. There are ups and downs in everyone’s life. We all become unhappy when we experience problems and set-backs. These unhappy feelings are usually temporary. For some people, though, sad feelings last a long time and are quite severe. It’s important to take depression in young people seriously.

Download our Children & Youth Depression brochure.

“Depression” is a clinical term used by psychiatrists to describe a long period when a person feels very sad to the point of feeling worthless, hopeless and helpless. Depression is a type of mental illness called a mood disorder. Mood disorders affect the way you feel, which also affects the way you think and act. Depression can be caused by stress, a loss, or a major disappointment. Sometimes, it seems to happen for no particular reason at all. Depression can be the result of a chemical imbalance in a person’s body, and some people are born with a built-in tendency to become depressed. Whatever the reason may be, depression can affect all aspects of our lives: work, family relationships, friendships, and even our physical health. Many people who experience depression feel irritable or angry and some people say that they feel ‘numb’ all the time.

Depression does not affect only adults. It can happen to children and teenagers too, and it is just as real a problem for them as it is for adults. Depression often starts between the ages of 15 and 30, but can affect anyone. While we don’t know exactly what causes depression, many factors are likely at play. These include family history, personality, life events, and changes in your child’s body. Certain medications and physical illnesses can also contribute to depression. Very likely, a depressed child will think that no one else feels the same way and that no one will understand their problems. Often, a depressed child will feel that he /she is disliked by everyone.

If your child becomes depressed, they are unlikely to talk about it. Your first warning signs will probably be changes in behaviour that may suggest a troubled and unhappy state of mind. A child who used to be active and involved may suddenly become quiet and withdrawn. A good student might start getting poor grades.

Some of the common signs of depression can occur when school, social or family pressures become too great. Do not assume that your child is experiencing a major depression if they show only one of these signs. Your child may, however, be depressed and need professional help if there are unexplained changes in their behaviour or if you notice several of the following signs of depression:

  • Changes in Feelings – Your child may show signs of being unhappy, worried, guilty, angry, fearful, helpless, hopeless, lonely or rejected.
  • Physical Changes – Your child may start to complain of headaches, or general aches and pains. They may have a lack of energy, sleeping or eating problems, or feel tired all the time.
  • Changes in Thinking – Your child may say things that indicate low self-esteem, self-dislike or self-blame. They may have difficulty concentrating or frequently experience negative thoughts. They might even think about suicide.
  • Changes in Behaviour – Your child might withdraw from others, cry easily or show less interest in sports, games or other fun activities that they normally like. They might over-react and have sudden outbursts of anger or tears over fairly small incidents.

Some of these changes may be signs of mental health problems other than depression. It’s important to look at the bigger picture: how intense the changes are, how they impact your child’s life, and how long they last. It’s particularly important to talk to your child if you’ve noticed several changes lasting more than two weeks.

Depression is very treatable. Children, teens, and adults can all recover from depression. For children and teens in particular, early treatment is important so they can get back to their education and other goals as quickly as possible. Support for a young person who experiences depression may come from several different people and places:

  • Family Doctor – Your family doctor is often the first place you start, but you may also find support through people like psychiatrists, psychologists, counsellors, social workers, or peer support workers. Many communities offer programs that support healthy children and build social connections—these are also helpful in preventing depression.
  • Schools – Schools are also an important place for all children. Many schools offer programs that build skills, resiliency, and supports. If you’re concerned about your child’s health, teachers and school counsellors can describe changes they’ve seen or problems they’ve noticed during the school day. If your child is diagnosed with a mental illness, your child’s school may make small changes to support your child’s learning goals. Many schools offer counselling or referrals to community services.
  • Counselling and support – Many children start with counselling like Cognitive-behavioural Therapy (CBT). CBT teaches people how their thoughts, feelings, and actions work together. It also teaches skills such as healthy thinking, problem solving, and stress management. CBT has been widely adapted for different groups and different situations, and it’s also useful to prevent depression. Self-care strategies to stay well are important for everyone. This includes eating well, exercising, spending time with others, and making time for fun activities. Ask your care team for ideas. They can also recommend programs or services in your community that support healthy living.
  • Support Groups – Support groups may also be helpful. Support groups are an opportunity to share experiences and learn from others. There are also groups specifically for caregivers and family members.
  • Medication – Your child may also be prescribed an antidepressant if other options don’t seem to help. This is a group of medications used to treat depression and other mental illnesses. The decision to use medication can be complicated, especially if your child is young. Medications can be helpful for some children, but there may be extra risks to consider. It’s important to have an honest discussion with your doctor so you know what to expect. Most professionals will consider medication for children under the age of 18 as a second option to other approaches, like counselling.

If you have noticed any of the signs discussed here, do your best to encourage your child to talk to you about how they are feeling and what is bothering them. If you think your child is seriously depressed, do not panic. Professional help is available to both your child and yourself.

  • Start by checking with your family doctor to find out if there could be a physical cause for your child’s feelings of fatigue, aches and pains, and low moods.
  • Talk to your child’s school to find out if any teachers have also noticed changes in behaviour and mood. Talking to your child’s teacher about their difficulties may change the way the teacher interacts with your child and can increase your child’s sense of self-esteem in the classroom.
  • Many school boards have professional counsellors on staff. The school counselor may be able to refer you to individual or group counselling to help children and teens cope with stress. The school counsellor or your family doctor may refer you to a children’s mental health clinic. If there isn’t a clinic nearby, there may be a psychiatrist or psychologist who specializes in working with children.

It is important to recognize your own feelings about your child’s depression. Since it is not always known why children become depressed, you might find that you are feeling guilty or frustrated. Without wanting to, you may let your child know this and make them feel rejected and misunderstood. It is not easy to cope with the needs of a depressed child. You may need help in learning how to help your child deal with their unhappy feelings as well as how to deal with your own feelings about their problems. Consider getting counselling for yourself as well as for your child. Many therapists automatically schedule family counselling sessions when they are working with a depressed child. You should also be honest with siblings, and other family members about your depressed child’s needs. That way, they will have several sources of support and understanding.

Reach out for help

If you have reason to suspect that your child may be depressed, there are many helpful books that can help you understand depression and others which give good advice on parenting. Check with your local library.

If you need more information about professional mental health services and community support programs for depressed children and their families in your area, you can also contact the Canadian Mental Health Association – Calgary Region at (403) 297-1700 or email: info@cmha.calgary.ab.ca.