Kei Iguchi / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff Writer
The number of children diagnosed with depression has increased in recent years, with the illness thought to be caused by various environmental stressors, such as information overload, interpersonal conflict at school, poverty or other problems they have no control over.
Medical specialists used to believe that children do not experience depression because their egos are not developed enough to worry or become depressed over their problems.
However, Hokkaido University Prof. Kenzo Denda, a child and adolescent psychiatrist, disputes this view.
“Children have mood swings just like adults do. They also worry about their relationships,” he said.
He began questioning the conventional wisdom about 20 years ago when a former patient, then a university student, said he had been experiencing symptoms similar to those he had suffered as a child.
Denda had treated the man when he was a primary school fifth-grader. At the time, he had been skipping school because of bullying, and had started acting violently at home toward his mother, even hurting himself.
Denda examined the man’s medical records from the time and realized his symptoms matched the typical manifestations of depression. He realized that his blind faith in his convictions had caused him to overlook a child’s disease.
After this incident, Denda began a serious study of childhood depression, learning from a doctor in London who treated many depressed children.
In fiscal 2003, Denda was put in charge of a team tasked with surveying childhood depression, the first such panel to be formed by the education ministry. Their study showed that 434 of 3,331 primary and middle school students, or 13 percent, had depressive tendencies.
A similar survey released in March by the school health council of the Hokkaido prefectural board of education showed that 3.7 percent of primary school third-graders, 13.3 percent of second-year middle school students, and 19.4 percent of second-year high school students had depressive tendencies.
These results indicate more needs to be done to protect children’s mental health.
According to Denda, the cause of childhood depression lies either at home or in school, “but these causes are sometimes intertwined, with bullying at school, problems with interpersonal relationships and abuse [by parents or other adults].”
A while back, Denda diagnosed a primary school second-grader with depression. The 7-year-old girl previously had a gentle temperament, but had recently become frequently irritated. She was unable to eat breakfast and woke up constantly during the night. A little later, she began staying home from school.
The girl told a psychotherapist she had been bullied by some boys in her class after the groups for activities were changed. She said the boys also had spoken badly about her family.
She was prescribed medication and told to rest at home. About two months later, she was back at school. Her treatment was ended after about six months.
Denda also pointed to the glut of information available to children via cell phones and the Internet as a factor in mental health issues.
“Nowadays, people expose their deepest thoughts and feelings in blog entries,” Denda said. “Adults can handle reading shocking stories, but children can’t cope as well, and they quickly lose their mental and physical balance.”
Childhood depression is usually less severe than the disease in adults, so it is often overlooked, Denda said.
“Japanese children in particular aren’t good at putting their feelings into words. They tend to just endure in hard situations,” Denda said.
In many cases, specialists only take note of insomnia or overeating, but overlook symptoms of depression.
To detect the disease early, Denda suggests paying attention to changes in a child’s lifestyle. For example, not sleeping soundly or eating properly, feeling down in the morning but becoming energetic in the evening, an inability to do things they like, and not being able to think appropriately.
“[If your child has depression,] you shouldn’t try to cheer him or her up,” Denda said. “You should sympathize with his or her feelings of hardship and anguish, and be ready for a cure to take a considerable length of time. Children need a loving presence watching over them.”
Children experiencing depression:
-Feel gloomy and irritated.
-Cannot enjoy doing what they like.
-Have a reduced appetite or overeat.
-Cannot get up in the morning and always feel sleepy.
-Feel sluggish all day and get tired easily.
-Think they are worthless and easily blame themselves.
-Cannot concentrate or think appropriately.
-Find no meaning in life.
(Based on a booklet on children’s depression supervised by Prof. Kenzo Denda)
(Dec. 9, 2012)