Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Depression in Children May Not Look Like Adult Depression

When most people think about depression, they usually picture a gloomy, dispirited Sad Sack walking through life like the cartoon character who carries his own dark cloud wherever he goes. But depression may look very different in children than it does in adults. Instead of sitting quietly in his room and crying, a child may yell, scream, use foul language, be defiant, and throw temper tantrums.

Children tend to exhibit depression by displaying anger and irritability, especially with family members. When they’re at home, depressed children might argue with parents, pick fights with siblings, or become annoyed at requests to help around the house. Children who are depressed try to avoid doing things that make them feel more irritable, such as chores or homework. Moreover, it’s unlikely that a child will be able to tell anyone that she’s feeling depressed.

Depression Is Not a Choice That a Child Makes

Depression is something that happens to a child – it is not a choice. Childhood depression appears to be associated with a biochemical imbalance in the brain that leads to negative changes in a child’s mood, attitude, energy level, sleep, concentration, appetite, self-esteem, social relationships, family life and school performance.

Children who are depressed may behave in ways that test the patience of parents, teachers, siblings and friends, but they aren’t simply being willful and difficult. Depression is an unwanted illness that in no way reflects upon the moral character of a child. Depression is a serious illness that affects a child’s ability to meet the demands of his or her life situation.

Being angry and irritable is not a natural state for a child. I’ve heard depression described as anger turned inward, but there’s a limit to how much anger a person can keep inside before he lets it out on other people. When parents ask me why their child is so angry, they seem to be thinking that if they knew who or what provoked such strong feelings in their child, they could fix everything. What they don’t yet understand is that too many problems can’t be solved by a simple conversation because the problems are really manifestations of depression.

No child would voluntarily choose to be so unhappy and cut off from the satisfactions of ordinary life for long periods of time. And no parent who struggles to make sense of a child’s difficult and even provocative behavior in the midst of the responsibilities of jobs, school and family wants that child to be miserable when something can be done to help. The first step in getting the right help for a child is to understand depression, where it comes from, what it looks like, and what treatments and strategies exist to help alleviate its symptoms.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Know the Signs of Sadness

The million-dollar question is: Are you depressed or just sad? Everyone experiences sadness, bad days, and blue moods from time to time. Feeling sad is not the same thing as being depressed. So the first order of business is to define what normal sadness is and how it is distinct from depression.

What exactly is sadness? Sadness can be defined as mental anguish or suffering in the absence of any physical pain, such as experiencing the death of a loved one or empathizing with a loved one who is ill. A mother watching her child suffer, for example, is not in any physical pain, but she still suffers and experiences sadness. When we are sad, our emotions are expressed through crying, talking, or thinking continuously about our sorrow. We may find it difficult to sleep, concentrate and eat. Sadness is characterized by sad feelings – the opposite of the numbness that is the main feature of depression.

The problem for many people in affluent cultures is that often sadness is not triggered by anything obvious. For example, our sadness can develop when we realize our lives or situations are not improving or even declining. Stagnating (being in a rut) or finding your life is getting worse rather than better are conditions that lead to sadness and suffering. As human beings, once our basic needs (safety, food, shelter, love) are looked after, we are driven toward self-actualization. But when our life circumstances stymie self-actualization or spiritual growth, we suffer and feel sad. The longing for material possessions, money, or an intimate relationship is often just an expression of the desire for self-realization. Later in life, many of us also begin to question our attachments to material possessions and power; as we get older, we begin to see the difference between real needs (such as love, friendship and respect) and artificial needs (such as money, power and prestige).

For those of us who like the status quo and our quality of life, sadness and suffering can develop when a life event of some kind threatens that status quo, our sense of our own identity, or our quality of life. The threat can come from an infinite variety of sources, of course, ranging from physical illness to financial hardship.