Many of us know adults who battle anxiety or depression, but what about children?
“Parents tend to think it’s rare or won’t happen to their child, but it’s not as rare as people think,” says Emily Vera, LCSW, executive director of the Mental Health Association in Delaware. What’s more shocking is that experts have diagnosed kids as young as 4 years old, she adds. “It can happen at any age and in any community—it doesn’t discriminate.”
According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), nearly 11 percent of kids age 12 to 17 experienced a major depressive episode over the course of a year in Delaware between 2013 and 2017. Of these, about 56 percent received care.
“It manifests differently at different ages,” says Vera, noting that she knows middle-schoolers who said they thought seriously about suicide. The cause could be an underlying mental illness or situational. For younger kids, something as simple as a change of home or school, or a new baby, divorce, stepparent or loss could be a major stressor.
So what should caregivers look for, and what can they do to help?
“Things like changes in mood, diet and sleep are some key signs,” Vera explains. “A child might seem agitated, anxious or sad, or they may eat and sleep more or less. They may also avoid normal activities, complain of physical pain or have negative thoughts.”
“[Depression] can happen at any age and in any community—it doesn’t discriminate.” —Emily Vera, LCSW
She says “more real-life connections” are the first step. “Put down the phone, turn off the television and spend with your kids,” Vera says. “Set up playdates so they can be around more kids.”
Caregivers should also ensure kids are getting enough sleep—going to bed and waking up at the same time each day—as well as eating healthily and getting exercise. “Everything you can do to help your child be physically healthy will lessen their risk,” she says.
Intensity and duration might be the tipping point: “All kids are going to act out or cry occasionally,” Vera says. “If it lasts longer than two or three weeks, you should seek help.”
She also urges parents to be open with their child’s school and ask their teachers or coaches about anything they might notice.
“They might see signs that you don’t,” she notes, “like drawings or an essay with a sad undertone.”
It’s also important to “normalize emotions,” Vera says. “Make sure your kids know it’s OK to talk about negative feelings and are comfortable sharing them with you.”
If you think your child needs help, get a referral from your family doctor.
“It’s pretty simple to get an evaluation, even for your own peace of mind,” Vera says.
It might also save your child’s life.
For more information and a list of symptoms, visit mentalhealthde.com.