It’s the season for seasonal depression. Children can get seasonal affective disorder, too, but they can also suffer from depression. While many children are described as anxious, fewer are described as depressed. Pre-pandemic, the CDC estimated 2.7 American children had depression, and we know data has shown these numbers have steadily increased since.
Here’s what to watch for and what to do if you suspect your child has depression.
What are the signs of depression in children?
Depression in children can present in a number of ways. Here are some things Dr. Georgina Garcia, a psychiatrist in Behavioral Health Services at Franciscan Children’s, says parents should look for:
- Loss of interest in regular or fun activities
- A decline in grades
- Changes in mood, such as increased irritability, tearfulness, or mood swings
- Changes in behavior regarding sleep, appetite, or energy
- Increased isolation; less social interaction with peers
- Somatic complaints like stomach aches or headaches
- Self-injury (scratching, cutting themselves)
- Reporting thoughts of wanting to die or kill themselves, even humorously
The signs in children can be different from those in adults. “Children don’t always have the language to describe their emotions—instead of saying they are depressed, kids will often use the term ‘bored,’” Garcia says.
While adults do often have physical symptoms, sometimes children only present with physical symptoms like gastrointestinal discomfort and don’t seem as “sad” or moody as an adult with depression might.
What to do if you think your child has depression
If you suspect your child is in danger of killing or harming themselves, seek help immediately. In the U.S., you can dial “988” to reach the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline and get 24/7 assistance via phone or chat. Or visit their website (previously the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline). Or, “If there is an immediate concern for the child’s safety, the parent should take the child to the nearest emergency room for an assessment,” Garcia says.
If you suspect your child is depressed but not in immediate danger, Garcia says, “Parents should first seek a professional assessment and support from their child’s pediatrician. The pediatrician will know what questions to ask and signs to look for, and if necessary, the pediatrician can recommend a good pediatric psychiatrist or psychologist for the child.” You can also try to get a mental health care provider directly, though there are often long wait lists. It is still worth pursuing for the sake of your child’s mental well-being, though.
“While it is important to bring your child to a professional, parents need to know that they know their child best,” Garcia says. “If their child has had changes in their mood, interests, and behaviors, the parents are crucial to early identification of these symptoms and can help engage their child in mental health care.” Sometimes a teacher or other trusted adult notices these changes, but most often, it is a parent who can track these patterns in their own children and get them the help they need as soon as possible.
What to do if you child is diagnosed with depression
In order to pursue official depression treatment, your child will need to be diagnosed by a health professional, such as their doctor or a psychologist. From there, Garcia says, “Talk therapy is usually the first line of intervention.” What that often looks like is the child meeting about once a week with a psychologist or a social worker and talk about how they are feeling and help develop coping skills. Sometimes therapy is done in conjunction with the school, on campus, or it may be in a private facility. Many insurance plans and Medicaid cover therapy, but you should always check with your plan.
If the depression continues even with therapy, “the clinician or pediatrician may recommend medications and/or a referral to a child and adolescent psychiatrist to see if medicine is appropriate for the child,” Garcia says. Often depression is treated with selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs, such as Prozac or Zoloft. Some children respond very well to these medications while others have issues with side effects or cannot take them due to other health considerations. You and your child’s medical team will need to discuss the best course of treatment for your child.
Will a child who is diagnosed struggle with depression their whole life?
If you’ve experienced depression, it may have been for a short time, or it may have been something you’ve dealt with your entire life. For your child, Garcia says it is not a lifelong diagnosis.
“The good news is depression can improve with treatment, and the child may no longer need therapy or medication,” she says. “Although it can sometimes reoccur, studies show that treatment of depressive episodes reduces the risk of future episodes of depression.” So by helping your child acknowledge their feelings and treat them now, you are setting them up for more resilient and successful mental health patterns in the future.