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Why Are So Many Young Kids Depressed

May 17, 2008
At one time, young people were considered immune to sadness. Now mental health professionals know better. Even preschoolers can develop symptoms of depression, such as irritability, sadness, and withdrawal.

Abela, Associate Professor of Psychology at McGill and Director of the Cognitive Behaviour Therapy Clinic at the Montreal Children's Hospital, says the realization that children can become clinically depressed is a recent development - within the last 20 years. But most studies of childhood depression focused on teenagers on the assumption that younger children don't have the cognitive capability and big-picture perspective to draw the negative conclusions that fuel depression.

Now Abela's research indicates that even the sandbox set can become depressed. He has found that small children, indeed, have already developed the cognitive factors that can lead to depression. Depression among children, he has found, respects no geographic boundaries.

"In the past 15 years, China has gone through the same amount of change that Europe or North America went through in 70 years during the Industrial Revolution." Marital infidelity and divorce are skyrocketing, urbanization is ripping apart traditional family compounds - and depression rates in China now equal our own.

Depression is the most common emotional problem in adolescence and the single greatest risk factor for teen suicide says child psychiatrist Peter Jensen, director of the Centre for the Advancement of Childrens Mental Health. He also notes that depression rated have been rising over the last half century: Teens born in the 1980s are more likely to develop depression than those who were born in the 1970s, whose rate of depression is higher than for those born in the 1960s.

Parents are bound to have trouble understanding a depressed teen's confusing signals; after all, who does not want to think of their child as happy and confident. But parents must pay attention to serious depression; the risks are too great if they don't.

No one knows the reason for this steady surge in sadness, but experts point to the breakdown of families, the pressures of the information age, and increased isolation. Social environment doesnt cause depression explains psychiatrist John March, M.D., who is heading a nation-wide study of therapies for teen depression. But environmental stress can bring out depression in people who are susceptible. Depression is more than teenage angst. It is an illness of the central nervous system that is common, impairing, and lethal.

Stress may predispose individuals to an initial episode. Several factors associated with physical illness may contribute to the onset or worsening of depression. These include the psychological impact of disability, decline in quality of life, and the loss of relationships.

Medication side effects may also be a contributing factor. Physical illness may also contribute directly to the onset of depression by affecting physiological mechanisms such as neurotransmitters, hormones, and the immune system.

However, the strongest predictor of depression might be cigarette smoking. Depressed teens may smoke because they think smoking will make them feel better, but nicotine alters brain chemistry and actually worsens symptoms of depression.

Discrimination is another form of a societal stressor, and it can also lead to depression. It can take many forms some as subtle as not being included in a conversation or joke, some as blatant as threats scrawled on a wall, and some as violent as brutal beatings and other hate crimes. Because it can be hard to deal with individually, discrimination is a particularly sinister form of stress. By banding together, however, those who experience discrimination can take action to protect themselves, challenge the ignorance and hateful assumptions that fuel bigotry, and promote a healthier environment for all.

In the last decade, there have been reports of greater intolerance among young people and a greater tolerance for overt expressions and acts of hatred on college and university campuses. In a study by Schellenberg, Hirt, and Sears, attitudes toward homosexuals among students at a Canadian university were measured. Their findings showed that (1) attitudes toward gay men were more negative than attitudes towards lesbians; (2) students in the faculties of Arts or Social Science had more positive attitude than students in Business and Science; (3) women were more positive than men and (4) attitudes toward gay men also improved with time spend at college, but only for male students.
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