Worried Your Child May Be Depressed?
Expert Advice for Spotting and Tackling It

Most of us think of a new year as a time for renewal and change, but for many young people in trying circumstances, it can seem like little more than a continuation of challenges presented by the previous year.

The more fears and worries add up, the more daunting it can be to move forward with daily life. The cumulative effect can be an increased risk for depression. It's important for parents and guardians to be on the lookout for signs of trouble and to seek early intervention to prevent problems, says Chris Noll, director of admissions at Great Circle.

“They’re coming off the holidays and may have been sleeping late, spending time a lot of time with family, watching TV or having an increased amount of social media/screen time,” Noll says. “It’s important to get back into a routine but to also be observant and trust your inner voice.”

Depression in children and adolescents can look different at various stages and in different individuals. Sometimes, it presents with obvious signs like sadness, irritability or lack of energy, especially in young children. In other kids, depression may show up as a loss of interest in regular activities and a lack of enjoyment of things they normally like. Other behavioral extremes, such as poor hygiene, sleeping too much or not enough, may also appear.

Less obvious symptoms like chronic boredom, changes in the child's circle of friends, lack of interest in being around friends, lack of ability to concentrate or fluctuating grades also may be signs of depression. The signs of depression can be especially pronounced in a child who was previously outgoing, upbeat and excelling in school, Noll says.

"It’s important to assess their normal. Be observant and consider their personal history,” he says.

Many conditions can predispose a child or adolescent to depression.

"It might be a serious life-changing event like a divorce or the loss of a loved one or a pet," Noll says. "It could be tied to the child's self-esteem, such as his or her appearance or a particular medical condition."

Genetics can also play a role in depression, he says. It’s important to help them understand that a mental health issue is not their fault. This can be done by discussing family history and explaining why someone may be at higher risk if a close relative has had behavioral health concerns.

“The greatest concern is when a child’s symptoms include thoughts of self-harm or increased risk-taking,” Noll says. “This change may take the form of a sudden shift or it can be subtle and appear over a period of time. Either way, parents and guardians need to be vigilant and seek help if problems arise."

If you suspect your child may be depressed, the first item in your action plan should be an open, honest conversation.

“It should be nonconfrontational. Reassure them that they are supported and loved,” Noll says.

To help facilitate a productive dialogue, create a setting where kids know they can speak comfortably when they are ready, he says. It’s also ok to acknowledge that the two of you often differ or disagree but emphasize that you are now in a “judgment-free zone” where anything can be discussed without anger or negative consequences.

If your child expresses any wish or plan to self-harm, call 9-1-1, head to the emergency room, or immediately contact behavioral health crisis resources, Noll says.

Many organizations are dedicated to making child and adolescent mental health care easier to obtain. Great Circle offers programs and services to help children and families address behavioral health issues. A pediatrician or primary care physician can also serve as a good referral source. In addition, urgent care facilities dedicated to behavioral health can be a useful after-hours resource when your family has a pressing need.

When it comes to accessing mental health care for your child, treat the situation with the same level of care that you would a physical illness or injury, Noll advises.

"When your child has pain or other medical condition, you don't hesitate to seek help," he says. "Behavioral issues can cause parents to pause. It’s ok to ask a professional for help. He or she will tell you if there is a need for further action."

There is no such thing as an inappropriate request for mental health care.

"Everyone struggles at different times, but human beings are not built to go it alone,” Noll says. “We’re wired for connection. We can and should rely on one another for help."