KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The chance of your child having cancer before his teen years is a fraction of one percent. The chance of depression is two and a half percent. Not just the blues, but a serious illness that experts say seems to be happening earlier in life than in past decades.
Before Gabe Brown graduated from kindergarten, he was diagnosed with depression.
“He would maybe turn over chairs, or he might hide in a corner, cry. A lot of the times, he was much happier playing alone. Of course, at that time, I didn’t know what it was,” says his mother, Kathy Brown.
Now 12, Gabe’s depression hasn’t gone away. The extreme lows are mixed with highs, so it’s believed to be bipolar disorder or manic depression.
“I’d give everything just to be somebody else,” says Gabe.
He doesn’t see — can’t see — what others see.
“Charismatic, a charmer — he has a wonderful sense of humor,” Brown said. “He is very, very smart.”
But Gabe says there’s a big part of his brain that says he’s nothing. Those persistent feelings of worthlessness and guilt are warning signs of major depression in kids. So are frequent episodes of sadness and tearfulness. In boys especially, there can be irritability or anger. The depressed child may want to be left alone.
“Another (symptom) would be just decreased engagement in the things the child usually likes to do — that they’re not as interested in, even video games or legos,” says Dr. Ken Sonnenschein, a psychiatrist, who adds that a downturn in school performance can also be a warning sign.
He says don’t expect your child to tell you he’s depressed since kids don’t have a vocabulary to express that.
What triggers depression? The doctor says it can be any kind of loss, but also abuse or deprivation. Brown believes Gabe’s depression goes back to the womb.
“I believe it has a lot to do with substance abuse when he was in utero and right after birth,” she said.
She thinks it’s also related to the neglect Gabe experienced before she became his foster mom and then adopted him. Another strong risk factor is genetics.
“Parents who have been depressed have kids who are depressed,” says Sandra Berg, the director of clinical services at Marillac in Overland Park, a center where mental illnesses are diagnosed and treated. Berg says parents with any concerns about their child’s behavior shouldn’t hesitate to contact their child’s school, community mental health centers or crisis hotlines.
Play is often used by therapists to get to the roots of the depression. Behavioral therapy for the child and family along with medication are the tried and true ways to treat depression. The disease can be successfully treated.
“The majority of kids who experience a depressive episode in childhood will not go on to have chronic depression,” said Dr. Sonnenschein.
But some, like Gabe, have chronic, severe depression. He spent six months at Marillac earlier this year. He receives ongoing therapy and support from a whole team of professionals.
“If he hadn’t had all the help that we have had, I’m not sure he would even be alive today,” Brown said.
Depressed children are much more likely to attempt suicide. The week before we met Gabe, he had made an attempt.
“I don’t know what made me stop, but I stopped, and I’m glad I told my friend,” he said.
The friend told an adult at school. For now, Gabe can’t be left alone.
“We have to get through it,” Brown said. “There is no alternative.”
“If she has hope, there has to be a reason for hope,” Gabe said.
Brown is holding on to hope — and to Gabe — as they live with a disease called depression.
For a list of warning signs in kids, go to http://aacap.org/page.ww?name=The+Depressed+Child§ion=Facts+for+Families