What you need to know:
- According to pediatrician Dr. James Kapondi, it is easy to pass off symptoms of depression in a child as normal emotional and psychological changes.
- Nonetheless, children with depression will often exhibit behaviours that are similar to those of adults with depression.
- Depression in children may be due to genetic vulnerability, physical health, and occurrences in the environment, biochemical disturbance, and family history.
Connie Anyango’s daughter was seven years old when she started to exhibit symptoms of depression. At first, Connie thought her daughter was going through a phase of behavioural change. But as weeks went by, she noticed that her daughter had become irritable. “She looked sad, ate less than normal, and hardly wanted to engage in fun activities, including things she previously loved to do,” says Connie. Her daughter looked withdrawn and sullen. At school, her performance tanked. For a girl who was top of the class, she stopped completing her homework, and in the end term exams, she dropped from the top position to nearly the last. “Her teachers asked me if everything was well at home. I said yes. They said that they had observed that my daughter had withdrawn so suddenly and recommended that I seek help from a therapist, pediatrician, or psychiatrist,” she says.
When she took her child to see a therapist, Connie was referred to a pediatric psychiatrist and her daughter was diagnosed with depression. “The doctor said that the behaviour changes were her way of communicating that all was not well,” she says.
Connie was fortunate that her daughter’s depression was caught in its early stages. In some cases, depression in children has accelerated so fast. In 2019 for instance, a standard six girl in Bomet County died by suicide after she was embarrassed and stigmatised by her teacher and fellow pupils for having her maiden period during class time. Jackline Chepng’eno committed suicide after she was overwhelmed by shame. Her teacher at Kabiangek Primary School in Konoin Constituency, Bomet County, had turned her into the object of ridicule and a science menstruation study case. Two years later, in July 2021, a standard seven pupil who was anxious about joining class eight took his own life in Homa Bay County.
In children, depression is significantly higher in boys under the age of 10 and more common in girls over the age of 10. According to the Centre for Disease Control (CDC), children struggling with depression will appear sad, hopeless, and easily annoyed. They will also show changes in their sleeping patterns, sleeping more or less. In some cases, they may feel worthless, guilty, or useless, and could injure themselves or show destructive behaviours towards themselves. When depression becomes severe in a child, he or she may contemplate suicide as an escape route.
According to pediatrician Dr. James Kapondi, it is easy to pass off symptoms of depression in a child as normal emotional and psychological changes. It is also harder to associate depression with kids which makes way for depression in a child to grow unabated.
Nonetheless, children with depression will often exhibit behaviours that are similar to those of adults with depression. “Watch out for the reactions your child makes when a tragic event occurs. Their reaction could be a pointer to possible depression,” says Dr. Kapondi. For instance, how does your child react if a close family member or neighbour dies or is involved in a tragedy? If their reaction is too extreme or is too prolonged, they could be suffering from depression.
Dr. Kapondi says that depression in children may be due to genetic vulnerability, physical health, and occurrences in the environment, biochemical disturbance, and family history. If not spotted early enough, depression may lead to a mental breakdown in a child. “Depression is not a mood swing that can just vanish without treatment. Take your child to the doctor if the symptoms go past the second week,” he says.
According to child therapist Damaris Kamau, you should also pay attention to how you and your partner behave in front of your child because your behavior may become fodder for your child’s depression. “If you suspect that your child is suffering or exhibiting signs of depression, resist talking about your work troubles, worrying excessively about your finances or someone’s illness, or fighting with your spouse in their presence,” she says.
Depressed children who’ve been exposed to excessive family or domestic violence, physical or sexual abuse, and alcohol abuse may attempt suicide or show suicidal traits. Some of the signs of suicidal thoughts include your child’s increased risk-taking, self-harm or self-destructive behaviour, constant talk of suicide or hopelessness, giving away their cherished possessions, and isolating themselves from other children and people.
According to Dr. Kapondi, even if your child is taking an anti-depressant, you may need to see a child therapist or pediatric psychiatrist. “A combination of drugs and therapy is the most effective way of combating depression. However, anti-depressants will need to be taken with caution as they may trigger bouts of hyperactive behavior in children with bipolar disorder,” he cautions.
Your child’s therapist may opt to use cognitive behavioural therapy, a form of therapy used to treat depression and anxiety. It involves turning a child’s negative thoughts and perspectives into positive thoughts and perspectives. This method works best among older children. During treatment, it is important for the parent to be involved. Treatment will also include the general wellbeing of the child. For instance, the doctor will recommend that the child starts having adequate sleep, physical activity for at least one hour per day, and a healthy eating schedule. This diet should include fruits, whole grains, vegetables, legumes, nuts and seeds, and lean protein sources.
Other approaches include:
- Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT): This form of therapy is aimed at helping children understand how to use their words to fight whatever negative thoughts and feelings they have.
- Psychodynamic Psychotherapy: This therapy is used to identify typical behavior patterns, defenses, and responses to the child’s inner conflicts and struggles.
- Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT): This type of therapy is used to help depressed and anxious kids learn how to manage stress, keep their emotions in check, and grow their relationships.
- Interpersonal Therapy (IPT): This form of therapy mainly focuses on interpersonal interactions and problematic relationships and how they affect the child’s emotional state.
- Mentalization-Based Therapy (MBT): This type of treatment will usually focus on the child’s ability to recognise their thoughts, feelings, wishes, and desires, and how these relate with their current behaviours.