Childhood Depression

During May, Mental Health Month, many national and regional mental health and advocacy organizations are focusing on areas that are of particular importance to the general public. One of these areas is childhood depression. May 9, 2000 has been declared Childhood Depression Awareness Day, or Green Ribbon Day. The goal is to get the word out that childhood depression is real and treatable.

When people hear the term mental illness, they most likely envision a man or woman who is suffering from this ailment. They normally do not think of the ten-year-old boy who cries in his room for no apparent reason, the teenage girl who angrily slams doors, or the youngster who is barely eating.

Unfortunately, the incidence of childhood depression continues to grow. As many as one in every 33 American children may experience depression, according to figures released by the federal Center for Mental Health Services. The depression rate for adolescents is even higher: as many as one in eight.

According to the National Mental Health Association, children with depression experience persistent feelings of sadness and hopelessness. They may withdraw from friends and family, act out in anger or lose interest in activities they once enjoyed. Left untreated, childhood depression can lead to school failure, substance abuse and even suicide–the third leading cause of death for 15- to 24-year-olds and the sixth leading cause of death for 5- to 14-year-olds.

In my last article, I mentioned the high percentage of women–twice as many as men–who suffer from major depression. Not surprisingly, this illness does not just instantly appear one day in a woman’s life. There are earlier signs and episodes that offer a warning. Many of these signals start off in childhood–especially for teenage girls.

Although the majority of adolescent girls show signs of strong mental health, the incidence for depressive symptoms in girls is 50 percent higher than that for boys. According to a study conducted by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), adolescent girls report alarmingly high rates of thinking about suicide. Among high school girls being interviewed, 1 in 3 had thoughts about suicide in the past two weeks, and another 3 percent responded positively to the statement, “I want to kill myself.” Evidence also indicates that increases in depressive disorders and mood swings are greater for girls than for boys during adolescence. The bottom line: By the age of 15, girls are twice as likely as boys to suffer from depression–a gender difference that persists into adulthood.

Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls (a highly recommended book, especially for parents of teenage girls) describes how self-confidence declines with age for girls, but not for boys. In a HHS study based on 10 statements about their feelings of self-worth, only 39 percent of high school girls (grades 9 to 12) were highly self-confident compared with 44 percent of younger girls (grades 5 to 8). In contrast, self-confidence improved with age among boys, with more than half (55 percent) indicating they were highly confident by high school.

What signs indicate that a teenage girl is depressed and reaching out for help? Part II in this series will cover some of the warning signals. The earlier the problem of depression is confronted in a girl’s life, the better her chances of a happy and healthy future.