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Sstd, BA (WSU) B Ed. Psych. M Ed (Ed. Psych.) (UJ), Cert. Child Law (UP) Doctoral Candidate (UJ)

Understanding Depression in Children and Teens

Once in a while we will experience some emotional lows.  This may be evoked by an event related to family, relationships, work  or school matters. It is expected that when we feel as though t the odds are against us we may feel t,his way: it is a normal feeling.  However, when those feelings are prolonged or begin to interfere with other aspects of an individual’s life, this should set off an alarm bell because it could be depression knocking at the door.   

Depression is a mood disorder that is “characterised by persistent sadness and lack of interest or pleasure in previously enjoyable activities” (World Health Organization). Even though it is categorised as a mood disorder, depression can also affect one’s mind, behaviour, and body. It is often indicated that our body goes where our mind is.  Therefore, the body will also feel sick at times.  Depression is not limited to adults only.  Children too can experience depression and/or anxiety.  However, this is not easy to detect as parents and often communities have little knowledge about it.  Depression is a real illness that requires treatment, and it should not be brushed off as a personal weakness, being moody, or a mere ‘phase’ children go through.

Children and adolescents develop rapidly and  signs and symptoms of depression can easily be missed or overlooked as part of their developmental phase. This makes children even more susceptible to dealing with untreated depression for long periods of time. This is problematic because if left untreated for a long time, a child suffering from depression may self-medicate using, and even abusing, alcohol and substances. In other cases, this might also lead to attempting or committing suicide. 

The causes of depression are varied and complex. According to the Biochemistry perspective, depression occurs when there is an imbalance or low levels of chemicals in the brain, namely neurotransmitters. The main neurotransmitters implicated in depression are dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine. Some external life-changing events like the loss of a loved one, inadequate parental care, abuse or neglect can also trigger depression in children.   Further, genetic predisposition- that is, if there is family history of depression, may make a child more susceptible to depression.   

Depression can vary in terms of severity: ranging from borderline, mild, and severe (psychotic). The symptoms of depression in children are often the same as in adults. These may include:

  • Feeling sad, worried, and helpless;
  • Loss of interest and enjoyment in everyday activities; 
  • Self-harm and suicide ideation;
  • Increased irritability and frustration; 
  • Increased anger and avoiding social interactions; 
  • Changes in sleeping patterns, insomnia or excessive sleeping;
  • Changes in appetite;  and 
  • Sudden changes in schoolwork, which reflect poor academic performance.  

If your child has exhibited more than 3 of these symptoms persistently for longer than two weeks or you think that your child might be depressed, you need to seek help from a medical professional.  It is important to note that an accurate diagnosis of depression can only be done by a certified Health Practitioner. 

Depression can be treated and managed and there are a few options you may want to consider for you children. The  main options include forming healthy habits relating to diet and exercise, going to talk therapy, and pharmacotherapy (taking medication). The choice of treatment is evaluated on a case by case basis and must be done under the advice of a medical professional. 

NRPP offers specialised psychological services aimed at diagnosing and treating depression in children and teens. For more information you can consult the NRPP website, email us at info@rajuililpsychologist.com, or call us at 061 527 9586.  

Nontsikelelo Rajuili Registered Educational Psychologist  HPCSA Reg:  PS 0069833