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In accordance with the National Mental Health Association's Children's Depression Awareness Day on May 9, we spoke with Beverly Cobain, cousin of Nirvana front man Kurt Cobain and author of “Dying To Be Free: A Healing Guide for Families after a Suicide,” about the warning signs of depression, and how families can cope and get help together.
LifeTips: Thank you for joining us. Let's start off with the basics: What are the warning signs for parents to look for in their children, if they suspect depression?
Cobain: If parents suspect their child may have depression, they will already be seeing behaviors and symptoms which concern them. All behaviors mean something, so anything they notice about their child that is a marked change must be addressed. Once the family physician has ruled out a physical illness or condition, the next appropriate step is to have the child evaluated by a mental health professional, hopefully a pediatric or adolescent psychiatrist. Signs which may be seen by parents when a child is depressed include:
-Inappropriate anger outbursts
-Skipping or disliking school
-Withdrawal from friends/family and/or social activities
-Spending more time alone
-Frequent mood changes
-Changes in sleeping patterns and/or energy levels
-Changes in appetite
-Any other behavior that is a change from the child's “norm”
LifeTips: How early an age can depression be experienced?
Depression can occur at any age, which may be why so many young people become severely depressed before anyone considers the possibility of a mental health problem.
LifeTips: What are some risk factors which may cause depression?
True clinical depression is an issue of brain chemicals and may have a genetic feature. Still, certain risk factors for depression include:
-Any type of abuse or perceived abuse
-Any major or loss (by divorce, death, ill health, etc.)
-Anxiety for any reason
-Trauma of any type
-Alcohol/other drug abuse
Many children and teens have close family members who have suffered from depression, yet do not experience depression themselves, while some young people who have no depression in their families still become depressed. We are almost certainly looking at a combination of genetic and environmental factors.
LifeTips: So many children today look up to musicians/actors, and aspire to be a Hollywood Star. How do you talk to these children about setting realistic goals, without damaging their creativity?
I believe the basis for healthy thinking and goal setting is to have good self-esteem. This is acquired partly through role models in the form of parents, teachers, relatives and other trusted adults. Young people need adults to support them in all their healthy endeavors, encouraging them to achieve success one small step at a time, and being there for them when they are not successful. Being unsuccessful at some things we try is a part of life, but need not make us feel like failures.
LifeTips: The National Mental Health Association says one in every 33 children and one in every eight teens suffers from depression. Should we be worried? Are these statistics high?
Depression is a huge issue for our youth. It affects the entire body, mind, and spirit, and if not diagnosed early and treated appropriately, depression can change the entire lives of young people, and who they will become as adults. Depression can result in bad behavior, bad decisions, bad health, low self-esteem, relationship problems; it can prevent good a education, lead to drug and alcohol problems, violence, and suicide. Should we be worried? Absolutely. Should we do everything possible to prevent any child from slipping through the mental health cracks? Yes. Now.
LifeTips: How often are other medical conditions like ADHD, ADD, Autism, or other learning disabilities linked to depression in kids?
I'm not sure anyone knows the answer to this question, but I do know that too many children are misdiagnosed with ADHD and ADD, treated with the wrong medications, and are not only not getting well, but are getting worse. Bipolar illness (a serious form of depression) presents very much like ADHD in young children. In addition, if a child is depressed, he may very well be unable to concentrate, perform tasks readily, and remember rules, all symptoms of ADHD and ADD.
LifeTips: In some cases, depression is hereditary. As a parent suffering from depression, but aware of the disease, how can you help your child(ren)?
A child may or may not become depressed because a parent is, but if a parent is depressed, the most significant thing s/he can do is to be treated effectively for the type of depression s/he has. The best chance the child has to grow into healthy adulthood is to have parents who are “there” for them emotionally and physically. The more the child knows about the parent's depression, the more the child will be aware of any mental health problems he may someday experience.
LifeTips: The last thing we want to happen is suicide. If you are afraid your child might be thinking of suicide, what should you do?
First, be willing to believe that even young children can be suicidal. If you suspect your child may be thinking of suicide, someone must ask if s/he is thinking about ending his/her life. You may put the question in your own words, but the question must be asked. The only wrong way to ask the question is in a negative way, such as, “You aren't thinking of suicide are you?” This will tell the person that you may not be able to hear the truth. Show compassion and caring. Take time to listen to the answer (most people who are thinking of suicide will admit it with relief if you ask them), and don't panic. Ask what is hurting the child and then listen carefully. Don't try to change his/her mind, and don't argue. Tell him/her you will help to get them through whatever the problem is, and then get them to a mental health professional right away. If they are suicidal, do not leave them alone under any circumstances.
LifeTips: If a child seems depressed, the National Mental Health Association suggests that parents ask “What's the matter?” Is it that simple?
It's a start. Some children may say what is wrong, and some may not. Depressed children may not know what is wrong, just that they feel awful. Knowing how children feel inside may lead to the reasons for behaviors which have concerned you. Then you can deal with the cause of the feelings. It's very important not to judge the feelings young people report. A caring and open attitude is crucial.
LifeTips: Is there anything you want to say to parents or kids about depression?
Yes, I always have something to say, given the opportunity. I believe that many young people are grieving. If there have been one or more losses in their young lives, caused by divorce, abuse, alcoholic parent(s), loss of a family member or beloved relative, neighbor, friend, pet. If they have been relocated to another location and left friends and/or loved ones behind; if they have been bullied at school or by siblings, children suffer some level of grief. Extended grief can lead to depression. I urge families to pay attention to losses in the lives of their children. Even losses that may seem petty to adults are often traumatic for children. Divorce is a huge loss for children and teens, no matter how friendly it may seem. It is the death of a family. Attention must be paid to the children to the extent that even though they dislike the divorce, they are allowed to express their feelings about it, and go entirely through the grief process, which includes denial, anger, blame, and guilt, among other reactions. This process may take up to two or more years, and is critical to their future health and well-being.