What are the signs your child may be experiencing depression?
Ontario therapists weigh in on what to look for, when to seek help
The COVID-19 pandemic has created a challenging year for most Canadians – and children and youth are not immune to the mental health impacts it has caused, including depression.
According to new crowdsourced data by Statistics Canada, 57 per cent of youth ages 15 to 17 who participated in the survey reported that their mental health has worsened since physical distancing measures were put in place.
The mental health of younger children is also at stake.
Child and family therapist Daniela Shulman said that social isolation due to COVID-19 can trigger depressive symptoms in children, especially those who already have a history of depression or who have family members who may be depressed.
“A lot of things that help depression are kind of out of reach, like social contact, a lot of after-school activities, things that kind of increase serotonin and happiness in children,” she added.
Therapist Katie Ryzebol agreed, adding that it’s important for parents to look for certain changes in their children’s moods and behaviours, and to not be afraid to ask tough questions or seek help when needed.
What are the signs of depression in children?
Ryzebol and Shulman said when looking for signs of depression in children, parents should be paying attention to the following physical, emotional and behavioural symptoms:
• Low energy level (Is your child tired? Is there a lack of energy? Are they sleeping more or less than usual?)
• Changes in diet (Is there a change in their weight, or a loss or increase in appetite?)
• Prolonged sadness (Is your child’s sadness more persistent and severe?)
• Lack of excitement (Are they demonstrating a lack of interest in things they were interested in before?)
• Social withdrawal (Are they distancing themselves more?)
• Changes in communication (Are they oversharing? Is there a lack of communication? Is there a lot of negative self-talk? Are they more irritable or angry?)
Shulman said that while sadness is normal to see in children, depression means these symptoms are more persistent and generally last for longer than two weeks.
How should parents respond to these signs?
Ryzebol recommends sitting down with your child privately and creating a safe space to talk, however that may look.
“Maybe you know your child feels safe when you get them a treat or when you’re really setting aside some attention to give to them,” she said.
Then, she added, it’s all about being a non-judgmental listener and asking questions like “How can I help?” while reminding your child about who they are and that they are loved for who they are.
Ryzebol said in instances when children are expressing a significant amount of negative self-talk, it is important for parents to not be afraid to ask tough questions, including those around suicide and self-harm.
These should be very direct, she said, adding that parents can ask questions like “Have you ever thought about hurting yourself?” or “Have you ever thought about maybe it would be nice to not live anymore?”
“By asking that question, you make it OK for them to answer that question,” Ryzebol said.
When should families seek help?
Shulman said that as a general rule, if parents are seeing the signs of depression in their children for two weeks or more, they should check in with a family doctor to rule out that the symptoms aren’t a physical sign of any other ailments.
“After that’s ruled out, your pediatrician can refer the child and family to see either a psychiatrist or psychologist, where they can either get diagnosed for depression or get an assessment and see what else is going on, and get treatment for that,” she said.
Ryzebol added, however, that if the symptoms seem to be out of control beforehand and are causing the family anxiety, that may be an appropriate time to seek professional help.
What are some helpful resources for families?
Here are some Canadian and local resources parents and children can access, recommended by the Mental Health Commission of Canada:
• Children’s Mental Health Ontario (CMHO) has a COVID-19 resource list.
• Jack.org has mental health resources for young people.
• School Mental Health Ontario has COVID-19 tips online for students and families.
• Sick Kids has COVID-19 online resources for parents and children.
• Youth Mental Health Canada has online resources for young people in crisis during the pandemic.