In 2004, a survey carried out by the NHS found that 1 in 10 children aged 5-15 in the UK had a mental health disorder. By 2017, the figure had risen to 1 in 9. This increase was largely due to a rise in the number of children aged 5-15 who had an emotional disorder like anxiety or depression (3.9% in 2004 to 5.8% in 2017). When older teenagers were included (5-19-year-olds) around 8% had an emotional disorder. That means that even before the pandemic hit, the number of children reporting some kind of mental health problem in the UK was on the rise… hence the first ever Children’s Mental Health Week in 2015. And if the evidence is to be believed then Covid-19 and the constant lockdowns have not improved matters.
First things first, an unhappy child is often a healthy child
It’s been a really tough year, and although it may sound strange to say that children should be unhappy, it’s perfectly normal and in fact healthy for children (and parents!) to allow themselves to experience and express a range of negative emotions. Trying to hide feelings like anger and sadness, rather than learning to express them in a healthy way, can actually lead to an increased likelihood of developing symptoms of depression or anxiety. It can also cause social problems like feelings of loneliness or being bullied. Feeling down is not the same thing as being depressed, though. So how can you tell when a child’s feelings of sadness or anger are more than just part of their everyday processing?
How to tell the difference between unhappiness and something more
Depression in children (and adults, too!) tends to change three main things: feelings, thoughts and behaviour. Being unhappy can do this as well of course, but the changes that come with depression last a long time and will get in the way of your child living their life.
Feelings: Children with depression tend to feel sad or irritable a lot of the time and no longer enjoy the things they used to do. A little bookworm might no longer show any interest in reading, for instance. Some children also feel guilty and blame themselves for things going wrong in life, or even for simply feeling blue.
Thinking: Depression can lead to thoughts that are really negative, especially when it comes to thinking about yourself. This can affect self-esteem and children can end up believing that they are ‘no good’ and that problems are their fault. Depression can also affect their concentration, making it harder for them to pay attention or make decisions. This could be reflected in worse school performance or you overhearing them saying negative things about themselves.
Behaviour: Often, depression is accompanied by changes in eating and sleeping – either doing it a lot more or a lot less. Children can become less active, feel tired and have low energy… although it’s possible they may also be tense and restless. It’s not uncommon for children to complain of headaches and stomach aches too, so these are all things to look out for.
As you can probably tell, no two children with depression are going to be exactly the same – every child is different, and the severity of the problem, and the child’s age, will have an impact on how depression affects them individually, too. To make things even more complicated, feelings, thoughts and behaviours can all affect each other. For instance, lacking the energy to complete a task may make feelings of guilt worse and increase negative thoughts about themselves – especially if school performance starts to plummet or friendships are affected by their changed behaviour.
Depression tends to change three main things: feelings, thoughts and behaviour.
Luckily, depression in children is still uncommon and around 10% of children and young people who become depressed tend to recover spontaneously within about three months. By the end of the first year, 50% will have recovered. After two years, only around 20-30% of children remain depressed. That may make it seem like it’s worth just waiting it out, but getting treatment can shorten how long depression lasts, and leaving it untreated can lead to it becoming worse. It’s always good to talk to your child about what they’re feeling, regardless of whether it turns out to be depression or something else. The focus of Children’s Mental Health Week this year is encouraging children to express themselves.
About the Author
Dr Ruth Spence is a research psychologist and academic. Her research focuses on mental health, including common disorders like depression and anxiety, as well as attachment and life events. Although she has published in academic journals, she decided to write a picture book so she could reach children and families that might be affected by mental health issues. Her picture book is a tool to help adults talk to children about depression. It is available now. It has been reviewed by Little Parachutes and has been given a gold star award – a mark of the very best helpful picture books for children.