Current State of Depression in Children in the U.S.
According to the CDC, 3.2% of children (approximately 1.9 million) ages 3-17 have diagnosed depression. For a summary of statistics, symptoms, causes, and contributing factors to childhood depression, please see my previous blog (insert link to Sadness and Depression in Children 12 and Under: Facts, Causes, Contributing Factors, and Symptoms once it’s published). Multiple studies suggest steady and dramatic increases in childhood depression (clinically called pediatric depression) over the past 50-70 years. This significant shift isn’t due to a change in diagnostic criteria, as trends remained the same when measures and criteria remained constant. Research estimates show 5-8x increase in the rates among current high school and college students who meet criteria for depressions compared to 50 years ago. Personality inventory data collection for college student mental health disorders dates to 1938, while high school student assessment to 1951.
What’s The Cause of This Increase in Childhood Depression?
Mental health professionals believe changes in how children view the world, rather than how the world is, is the root of change. Researchers suggest that children’s belief about having over control of their lives has declined dramatically over the past five decades. They cite a shift from valuing internal goals (those focused on personal wellbeing and development) to extrinsic goals that are based on materialism and other’s judgments or evaluations of us has happened. Technology and social media have fueled the idea of materialism as the definition of success. Rewards that are external to one’s own determination (e.g., income, socioeconomic status, property, attractiveness) can lead to the belief that things are beyond our control and we are victims of our circumstances, rather than we have free will and can control our fates.
Commonly Held Beliefs that are Myths and Reinforce Social Stigma – Continuing to Damage our Children
Although views on mental illness are changing in a positive way, many myths about childhood depression continue to exist. Rooted in Western culture that values independence, “pulling yourself up by the bootstraps,” and solving problems on one’s own problems and the increase in materialism, society tends to find fault individually rather than looking at the multi-layered causes of depression. If a friend shares they have a depressed child, what thoughts or images come to mind? Is the child crying all the time, appear sad or unhappy typically, weak, or bullied? These popular myths may automatically guide your thoughts; however, they are based on stereotypes. And while stereotypes have some small basis in truth, they can be long-held myths.
Debunking Myths about Childhood Depression
Myth #1 – Children can’t get depression.
It was once believed children were not emotionally or cognitively mature enough to have depression. However, brain scans show that even babies can experience depression. Depression can begin at any age and does not discriminate based on age, gender, race, ethnicity, or socioeconomic status there are many factors involved. And yes, it is a real illness.
Myth #2 – Sadness and depression are not the same.
Feeling sad is a normal part of life and can help teach children how to regulate emotions. It’s temporary unhappiness or feeling down. When sadness sets in for prolonged periods of time and lingers and worsens, parents or caregivers should be concerned about depression. Depression lasts for longer periods of time and involves significant dysfunction in a child’s daily activities.
Myth #3 – Sadness in children looks the same as in adults.
Child often don’t have the verbal language or cognitive ability to fully understand depression and be able to express the depths of their sadness or symptoms. This period is training to get a better grasp on emotions and words to describe them.
Myth #4 – Parents can always detect depression.
Think back to your childhood, did your parents always know what was going on? Thoughts and feelings are often hidden during this period. Children may be struggling in their heads and showing emotions may uncomfortable; they may not be able to describe them either. Parents should be aware of age-specific symptoms. For school-aged children, concentration difficulties, insecurity, arguing or irritability often, and expressing not liking things or having fun anymore. Love helps support children, but it can’t cure depression even with the best of intentions.
Myth #5 – Chronic stress or depression will go away.
Most illnesses don’t go away on their own; they require some form of treatment. It’s not a “phase” or “season” in a child’s development. Common treatments for depression are therapy, medication, and behavioral modification.
Myth #6 – Talking about sadness or depression will make it worse.
Just the opposite, talking about both can help validate children’s feelings and normalize their emotions and experiences. It lets them know they are not alone and are cared for. Sometimes sadness gets mistaken for depression and vice versa. Talking about it and seeking professional help can clarify which is the case.
Myth #7 – Risk of Child Suicide is Exaggerated.
Nationally, suicide is not among the top ten causes of death in children 0-9 years. However, it’s the 2nd leading cause of death among children 10-14 and remains there until age 24. In California in 2019, there were 27 recorded deaths by suicide for ages 5 -14. Depression doesn’t’ cause suicide, but it’s linked to it. Interrupting early symptoms of depression decreases suicide risk.
Myth #8 – Self-harming means a child wants to commit suicide.
It’s not necessarily indicative of suicide, however, the two are associated. Self-harm is typically related to wanting to feel something if they experience emotional numbness or to reduce feelings of pain or tension associated with depression. It’s better to catch the issue earlier, but many children who self-harm do not have suicidal intention. If you believe your child is suicidal or self-harming, seek professional help immediately.
Myth #9 – There are no proven treatments for childhood depression.
Several evidenced-based treatments are successful with children including play, family, and individual therapies and medication. Therapy especially helps them to identify feelings and emotions, express themselves, and learn healthy coping skills.
Myth #9 – Children with depression can’t lead productive lives.
Somehow misguided beliefs that children with depression can’t function persist. Children don’t cry all the time, aren’t lazy or weak, and sad and/or unhappy either. Depression isn’t caused by a deficiency or moral weakness. It exists across age groups and cultures throughout the world and many who have it are successful and high functioning when undergoing treatment.
Myth #10 – Depression only runs in families.
While genetics plays a role in depression, there are multiple causes and contributing factors involved. Children may have a higher tendency to develop depression if one or both parents have it, but it is not automatic.
I hope that this information cleared up common myths about depression. Please be on the lookout for our next blog,
For more information on Small Town Counseling services for children and teens, what to expect, and/or scheduling an appointment check out our Child and Teen Counseling Services or call 209-968-1707. FAQs and resources for depression are available in our Good Reads! For additional parenting resources visit Parenting Resources.
Crying all the Time, Lazy, and Weak: Myths About Childhood/Pediatric Depression is written by David Cayton, M.A, M.S.. David has experience as a mental health professional working with children, teens, and professionals, an academic advisor, education-based research assistant, and student affairs at colleges and universities. At the time of this publishing, David Cayton is Trainer and Research Associate at Small Town Counseling® a group mental health practice located in California that helps individuals, groups, and organizations in promoting mental wellness and education on trauma and anxiety through mental health services and training.
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