Monday, May 23, 2011

Children and teens in depression

Catholic News Agency by Peter C. Kleponis. PhD

Nine-year-old Tommy** was brought to my office by his mother. He was complaining of deep sadness. His grades in school were falling, he had trouble sleeping at night, his appetite was poor, and he often cried.

Tommy was clinically depressed. His parents were going through a divorce, and no matter how much they tried to reassure him of their love for him, he worried about who would take care of him. Deep down, Tommy also believed he was partially to blame for his parents’ divorce.

Unfortunately, situations like this are not uncommon today, as children and teens are experiencing depression at alarming rates.

Depression can mean different things to different people. For some it’s feeling blue on a rainy day, and for some it’s sadness from deep disappointments in life. Still, for others, it can be a debilitating sense of hopelessness and despair that can leave one unable to function. We all experience some level of depression during our lifetime. It is part of the normal suffering that we all go through. For most people it usually lifts within a couple of weeks. However, when depression won’t seem to go away, or if it prevents one from functioning effectively in life, professional help may be needed.

Symptoms and solutions

Common symptoms of clinical depression in children and teens can include the following:
• feelings of deep sadness and hopelessness
• loss of interest in pleasurable activities
• weight loss or gain
• sleep difficulties and general fatigue
• feelings of worthlessness, inability to concentrate, and/or recurrent thoughts of death – for some teens, this       means thoughts of suicide.

Depression can be caused by internal and/or external factors. Internal factors include chemical imbalances in the brain. This type of depression is usually treated with medication.

External factors include major disappointments or losses in life, such as failure in school or sports, breakup with a close friend or romantic relationship, divorce, loneliness, abuse or situations over which one has no control. This type of depression is usually treated with therapy and medication, if needed. For some, depression is caused by a combination of internal and external factors. A trained mental health professional can properly diagnose this.

Because of the challenges our society presents, clinical depression is on the rise. Antidepressant medications are being prescribed at an alarming rate, even for children. Depression can affect anyone at any stage of life, from early childhood to old age. Early detection and treatment are key for a fast and lasting recovery.

Here are some situations for parents to be aware of:

Family conflicts: It is not uncommon for children and teens to become depressed when their parents are going through a divorce. The loss of an intact family life and the safety and security that come with it is devastating. Along with the typical symptoms of depression, these youngsters may also act out in anger. This can be seen in kids who become bullies and/or delinquent.

Lack of attention from parents: This is often seen in kids who spend excessive amounts of time in daycare, with nannies, or in multiple organized activities outside the home, such as sports. They are denied a strong bonded relationship with their parents. This type of parenting also leaves children and teens questioning their lovability. They feel rejected and unwanted by their parents. When children and teens don’t feel loved, valued and wanted by their parents, they will naturally experience hopelessness, despair and ultimately depression.

Peer relationships: Peer acceptance is extremely important for children and teens. However, if a child differs in any way (appearance, religion, ethnicity, abilities, etc.), it can result in rejection from peers. The child becomes ostracized and scapegoated by other children. Such rejection can also lead to feelings of worthlessness, hopelessness and ultimately depression.

Role of faith

Our Catholic faith can be a powerful tool in helping children and teens overcome depression. Developing a deep understanding of the immense and personal love of God can give kids a sense of purpose and protection. They can feel loved and valued even during tough times. Developing an understanding of Jesus as one’s best friend throughout all of childhood can decrease loneliness.

Attending Mass as a family and praying together can also increase their faith and sense of being connected. It is a fact that people with a strong faith life struggle with fewer mental health issues. By fostering a deep faith in children and teens, they will be able to weather the storms of life. If they do experience clinical depression, their faith can help them recover faster.

For most children and teens, depression usually subsides within two weeks. However, if it lasts longer than this, professional help should be sought. A faithful Catholic therapist will be able to combine the tools of modern psychology with our Catholic faith to develop an effective and lasting treatment plan. To find a qualified Catholic therapist in your community, visit

(**This is a fictional character based on a clinical model.)

* Peter C. Kleponis, Ph.D. is a licensed Clinical Therapist and Assistant Director of Comprehensive Counseling Services in West Conshohocken, Pa. His website is

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