Depression can affect children and teenagers as well as adults, and parents have an important role to play in helping their offspring to fight the condition.
Three years ago, Laura started to feel sad more often. It kept getting worse until she felt constantly unmotivated and listless. Now 15, Laura reached the point where she could hardly motivate herself to engage with everyday life any more.
“For a long time, I did not want to accept professional help, but at some point I realised I could no longer do without it,” she recalls. She has since received treatment for depression.
Many people don’t understand that depression can also affect children, and some continue to tell Laura that she is not unwell but just wants attention, she says.
And yet depression is one of the most frequent mental health disorders among children and adolescents, experts note. According to the German Foundation for Depression Relief, for example, less than 2% of pre-school and primary school-age children suffer from the condition, but it affects 3% to 10% of children between the ages of 12 and 17.
How can parents tell the difference between depression and emotional troubles that will pass on their own?
“Children with depression withdraw from others, no longer feel like meeting up with friends, do worse at school, feel worthless and no longer manage to get things done,” says professor Gerd Schulte-Koerne, a youth psychiatry expert at the University of Munich.
With children, it can be difficult to differentiate between depression and the normal anxieties of growing up. What’s more, every child is different and symptoms can vary depending on the child’s age.
However, when symptoms like sadness, listlessness or irritability last longer than two weeks and there is no external reason to explain them, Schulte-Koerne recommends consulting a specialist.
The first thing parents should do is to stay calm, look for information on the issue and, if necessary, seek advice themselves. Later, they should calmly speak to their child and pass the information on to them.
It’s also important to allow the child to describe their problems themselves, Schulte-Koerne notes.
“It is important for parents to signal their willingness to help and to show they understand the situation,” says Nina Pirk of the German association Nummer Gegen Kummer, which provides free telephone counselling to children, teenagers and parents.
Laura’s family were not initially aware of her problems, she says. When they found out, however, they were supportive.
Parents should not wait too long to turn to an expert. A frequent problem is that they tend to hope the issue will go away on its own. Once the condition has been acknowledged, it is usually possible to treat it, and psychotherapy is often the chosen form of treatment.
Laura, for example, had individual sessions twice a week and also had three music therapy sessions. She found the treatment relatively helpful: her mood has improved, and she has also become more motivated again.
In serious cases, hospitalisation can be necessary, Schulte-Koerne notes. Medication is more seldom used with children and adolescents.
Treatment should never be imposed without consulting the child. An open conversation about treatment and the prospect of getting better can be helpful in itself. It can also be good to explain to the youngster in advance what a therapy session will be like, or to let them visit the hospital with their family.
The most important goal of any treatment is to empower the child. Patients learn to change their negative thought patterns and deal with the situations that trigger them.
The child’s environment is also involved in treatment and in the search for potential solutions. The family should be strengthened so it can offer more help to the child, Pirk says. Other family members should also seek professional help if the emotional burden becomes too much for them.
Laura wishes it were easier for patients to deal with their mental health problems more openly, and she wishes more people were better informed about the condition.
Awareness is increasing steadily, however. A growing number of online tools offer a port of call for young people who suffer from depression, their families and friends, and educators. – dpa