Talking to Your Kids About Depression

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Depression is a disease, not a weakness.

I was heartbroken when I heard about Robin Williams’ death yesterday. He lived in my small town of Tiburon, California, and I would see him on occasion at local restaurants like the Buckeye Roadhouse and Luna Blu. I received the sad news right before my family sat down for dinner, and we talked with the kids about how great he was in movies such as Mrs. Doubtfire, Good Will Hunting, and Jumanji. Of course, my kids weren’t around when he was on the sitcom “Mork and Mindy” in the late 70s- early 80s, but for me, the lovable alien Mork from Ork was Robin Williams at his finest.

We talked about why he died and what it means to suffer from depression. I told my kids that depression is a disease, like cancer or diabetes. Because we use the word “depressed” in our common lexicon, such as “that movie was so depressing” or “I was so depressed after I saw that homeless man,” we tend to belittle the clinical term “depression” as something less than serious.

Those who suffer from depression know that it is much more than just feeling unhappy or in a bad mood for a few days. We all go through spells of feeling down, but when you’re depressed, you feel persistently sad for weeks or months, rather than just a few days, and you are not able to function normally.

I explained to my kids that depression is not a sign of weakness or something you can “snap out of” by “pulling yourself together.” Depression is a real illness with real symptoms. Psychological symptoms include lasting feelings of sadness and hopelessness, and loss of interest in things you once enjoyed.  Physical symptoms can include chronic fatigue, insomnia, loss of appetite, and addiction to drugs and alcohol.

Robin Williams was vocal about his lifelong struggle with depression, alcohol and drugs. After starting his battle with addiction in the 1970s he told People magazine in 1988: “Cocaine for me was a place to hide. Most people get hyper on coke. It slowed me down.”

As parents, it’s important that we talk to our kids about depression. Depression is the most common mental health problem in the United States, affecting approximately 1 in 10 adults, according to the CDC.  As many as 1 in every 33 children may have depression; in teens, that number may be as high as 1 in 8. The good news is that depression can be treated and rarely leads to suicide. Studies show that a combination of psychotherapy and medication is most effective at treating depression.

If you suspect your child has depression, it’s important that you get help. Schedule a visit with his or her doctor to make sure there are no physical reasons for the symptoms and to make sure that your child receives proper treatment. A consultation with a mental health care professional who specializes in children is also a good idea.

Here are some signs and symptoms of depression in children:

  • Irritability or anger
  • Continuous feelings of sadness and hopelessness
  • Social withdrawal
  • Increased sensitivity to rejection
  • Changes in appetite — either increased or decreased
  • Changes in sleep- sleeplessness or excessive sleep
  • Vocal outbursts or crying
  • Difficulty concentrating in school, lower grades
  • Fatigue and low energy
  • Physical complaints (such as stomachaches or headaches) that don’t respond to treatment
  • Lessened interest in activities, friends, school and hobbies
  • Feelings of worthlessness or guilt
  • Impaired thinking or concentration
  • Thoughts of death or suicide
  • Drug or alcohol use

Rest in peace, Mr. Williams. We will miss your smiling face.

 

 

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