Depression is more than feeling sad: It is an altered state of mind that also affects a child’s physical functioning. That is because depression causes changes in brain chemicals that affect the whole body. Sometimes the reverse is true. Some types of depression are initially caused by changes in brain chemistry and don’t have anything to do with circumstances in a child’s life.
Like all mental health disorders, depression exists on a continuum from mild to severe. Mild depressive symptoms must last at least one year to qualify for a diagnosis of persistent depressive disorder. Symptoms of the most severe major depressive disorder have to be exhibited for only two weeks.
Major depressive disorder, which is more common in adolescents than in children, is characterized by either a depressed mood or loss of pleasure or interest and five or more of the following symptoms occurring most of the day, nearly every day:
- depressed or irritable mood
- markedly diminished interest or pleasure in all or almost all activities
- significant weight loss or weight gain or decrease or increase in appetite
- insomnia or sleeping too much
- physical agitation or slowness
- fatigue or loss of energy
- feelings of worthlessness or excessive guilt
- decreased ability to think or concentrate or indecisiveness
- recurrent thoughts of death or of suicide
Unfortunately, depression among teens continues to increase every year. At any time, 10 to 15 percent of teens have some type of depression. Every 90 minutes, a teen commits suicide. Some factors attributed to the rise in depression among teens are:
- increased societal pressure around college and jobs
- social media causing comparisons with other teens, increased cyberbullying, and “fear of missing out”
- teens being ill prepared for some responsibilities due to helicopter parenting
Only 30 percent of young people with depression are receiving counseling or therapy. This means that a majority of children and teens with depression are not being treated and perhaps are not even being recognized.
One of the risks of untreated depression is the tendency to self-medicate with alcohol or other drugs. Symptoms of depression will cause problems in many areas of a child’s life, including learning and school performance. Following are areas where depression may have a major impact on learning.
Lack of Motivation
Children who are depressed lose interest even in things they care about the most. Motivation for schoolwork, which often is not among the things young people care about most, may be one of the first things to diminish. Lack of interest and motivation leads to lack of productivity, which can lead to lower grades.
Irritability and Anger
Children are more likely to manifest depression as increased irritability and anger. A typically compliant student might become argumentative with a teacher or other students.
Depression can cause difficulties sleeping or sleeping too much. However, even after a good night’s sleep, people with depression can feel tired the next day. Being sleepy or very tired in school affects concentration and productivity.
Depression decreases a child’s ability to concentrate. Concentration problems are frequently attributed to ADHD, but some students may actually be depressed or have an anxiety disorder that decreases their ability to focus.
Some children with depression lose their appetites. They may eat very little or no breakfast and skip lunch. Their blood sugar and energy levels will decrease over the course of a day.
It is important for parents to realize that depression’s effects are far-reaching. Depression can negatively impact school performance as well as social and family relationships. At its worst, it can lead to suicide. It affects more children and teens than most people are aware of. Depression is treatable, but first it must be identified.
Myles L. Cooley, Ph.D., has been practicing psychology for over 30 years. He evaluates and treats children, adolescents, and adults for a variety of problems. Dr. Cooley serves as a consultant to schools and has presented educational programs to educators, mental health professionals, physicians, and parents.
Myles is the author of A Practical Guide to Mental Health & Learning Disorders for Every Educator.
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