Preschooler Depression Can Have Lasting Impact

When you think about the typical child under the age of 5, it's common to imagine a playful boy or girl running around, sharing a laugh with others and excitedly exploring the world around them. While this may be the case for most kids, there is a growing concern that more and more young children are suffering from depression as early as preschool.

In a recently published report in the American Journal of Psychiatry, researchers from Washington University in St. Louis found that children, as young as preschoolers, who are depressed are two and a half times more likely to continue experiencing symptoms of despair later on in their academic career.

“It's the same old bad news about depression; it is a chronic and recurrent disorder,” said Dr. Joan Luby, director of the university's early emotional development program. “But the good news is that if we can identify depression early, perhaps we have a window of opportunity to treat it more effectively.”

According to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, about 5 percent of children and adolescents suffer from depression. Furthermore, another study cited that “about 8 percent of all preschoolers (children aged 3-5 years) exhibit behavioral problems severe enough to warrant a psychiatric diagnosis.”

Ruby Velasco, a mental health specialist and marriage and family therapist with Los Angeles Universal Preschool, says depression in children should be taken very seriously and that signs are often noticeable, but commonly missed or brushed off by adults.

“Symptoms of depression are subtle because a preschooler is still forming their language and developmental skills.”

“Symptoms of depression are subtle because a preschooler is still forming their language and developmental skills,” said Velasco. “A child who has or is experiencing high risk factors such as trauma, family challenges (financial hardship, domestic violence, unemployment, undocumented immigrant status, lack of social support system), isn't going to be able to grasp important social, emotional and academic skills needed for their proper well-being. That is why we are seeing more and more studies that stress 0-5 years of age are the most critical years of childhood.”

The Washington University researchers also noted in the report that mothers who nurture their children are less likely to fall into depression or clinical depression.

“Children need consistency and routine, and as adults, we must do our part to role model healthy and positive behaviors to help a child improve their short- and long-term prognosis,” noted Velasco.

The following signs and symptoms of depression may be evident in young children as early as 24 months:

  • Tearfulness
  • Irritability
  • Lacking joy
  • Anger
  • Boredom
  • Loneliness
  • Looking unhappy
  • Negative themes during play
  • Difficulty making choices (strong predictor of preschool onset depression)
  • Expressions of self-deprecation (strong predictor of preschool onset depression)

Experts say these signs can also represent other areas of concern, such as development delay and not necessarily depression. What's most important is for anyone caring for a child exhibiting these kinds of behaviors to seek mental health services immediately, as it's the best way to help him or her strengthen their lifelong, social/emotional well-being and academic success.

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