Depression in children and young adults can be hard to recognise, but these are some signs you can watch out for.
By Divya Kanchibotla
Depression is a major public health issue in India with significant contribution to diseases, mortality and socioeconomic issues. According to a WHO report in 2017, India is home to 57 million people who are depressed. Depression does not only affect adults but also children, teens and young adults. A survey conducted by ICICI in 2017 reported that 65 per cent of young adults between 22 to 25 years of age who responded to the survey showed signs of early depression. According to WHO’s Mental Health Status of Adolescents in South-East Asia: Evidence for Action report, released in 2012, one in four teens in India was depressed.
Depression is a complex disease that is caused by several factors including biological, social, economic and cultural factors. Traumatic experiences in early childhood, frequent migration, negative life events, educational setbacks, early relationship problems, family history of mental illness as well as stress at school and in the family are linked in varying degrees to depression among children and adolescents.
Depression in children, teens and young adults can be often hard to recognize, due to varied representation, but here are some signs you can be watch out for in your child and teen.
# Withdrawal from friends or lack of communicative behavior.
# Apathy, lack of interest in everything around them.
# Drop in performance at school.
# Excessive eating or complete loss of appetite, leading to sudden weight change.
# Sadness, irritability, tantrums, crying for no reason or severe response to slight criticism.
# Unexplained complaints of physical pain—headache, stomach ache, back pain.
# Difficulty concentrating and making decisions.
# Preoccupation with death, talking or joking about suicide.
# Irresponsible behaviour, lack of responsibility.
# Use of alcohol, drugs.
# Excessive use of social media.
How can you help?
Talk about it, but listen more!
Depression is associated with a huge stigma and that prevents a person from even talking about it, let alone seek help. In a multisite international study, 20–37 per cent of persons with depression in India were reported to have stopped themselves from doing something important because of anticipated discrimination (“why try” effect). This was a study on adults. The pressure on a young person is even greater, especially when they also going through many physical changes and don’t have a lot of self-awareness.
A parent can encourage their child to talk about their feelings by being open and welcoming. They can share their own challenges. Setting aside a time daily to talk face to face with your child, with no distractions will go a long way to support their mental health. It’s more important is to listen and acknowledge their feelings and get them to share. Don’t try and talk them “out” of depression. The focus should be on listening and not lecturing.
Be kind and create an open, loving atmosphere
All parents and guardians want the best for their children, but a critical and condemning parental or teaching style during early childhood may give rise to negative feelings about oneself. This can cause depression. A harsh, tense atmosphere at home creates a sense of insecurity and fear in a child, which initiates a cascade of biochemical changes that create stress, feelings of loneliness and contribute to depression. Contrary to that, a feeling of security at home generated by encouragement and love can create both mental and physical health for a young person.
Get to know your child’s friends
Sri Sri Ravi Shankar often gives this advice to parents who wish to change their child’s behaviour. He says that if we want to impact our child and change certain behaviour, we have to get to know their friends and impact them as well. If you feel your child has withdrawn and is exhibiting strange behaviour and refusing to communicate, the best way to understand them is through their friends. Get to know their friends—it’s worth it!
Don’t give up on your teen
Your teen or child may try to shut you out or not communicate inspite of your repeated efforts. They also might reject the help you try and give them, but don’t give up! Setting up a daily routine at home with face to face communication, limiting screen time and doing activities together will break those barriers.
Introduce them to Yoga, meditation and breathing techniques
Depression is also a biochemical process in the brain and the body. Yoga, meditation and breathing exercises like Sudarshan Kriya help one release neurochemicals and hormones that can reduce depression. The elements of deep breathing, stretching and relaxation allow neurochemicals like endorphins, serotonin and GABA to be released, making one happy and contented. By introducing them to these powerful holistic practices, you are also giving them a gift for their lifetime.
Make room for arts, sports, music and other cultural activities
Get your child to move! Physical activity and creativity is extremely important for mental health. It is also a great way to combat social media addiction and social isolation can accompany depression. Help your child explore what creative or physical activity makes them happy and encourage it.
Find a way to inspire them to study, not pressurise them
Traditionally, India is a society focussed on high academic performance and rigorous studies. In most families even now, the mental prowess of a child is only determined by their marks or grades. For parents, their child’s performance at school is a matter of social pride or an indication of their failure as a parent. This creates a lot of pressure at home, both for the parent and child. Unfortunately, the way our brain works is that under stress we tend to become less aware and make silly mistakes. Creating pressure on a child by scolding and berating them makes them negative and less smart! It is better to encourage and inspire them to excel in academics and find their own path.
Adopt a healthy lifestyle
Someone wise once said that children might not listen to you, but they never fail to imitate you. As a guardian or parent, if you have a healthy lifestyle with components of exercise, holistic practices, a well-balanced diet and limited screen time, your children will pick up these healthy habits automatically. It’s best to walk the talk, than just talk the talk! If we want our children to have a healthy lifestyle, then we must lead by example.
Take care of yourself
Depression not just affects an individual, but the entire family. In India, an average family spends at least Rs 1,500 a month to treat a depressed family member. They also experience significant mental and physical duress in the process of taking care of a family member undergoing depression. It is as important to take care of oneself. With techniques of Yoga, meditation and Sudarshan Kriya, one can learn to calm the mind, increase patience and resilience and be centered. When one’s mind is calm and body is rested, it is much easier to be available for others to take care of them.
In addition to this, do seek out professional help. It is helpful for the child / teen to talk to an adult with experience in helping others in the same situation.
Remember that depression is not an incurable state. With proper care of mind and body and a positive social environment, it is easily managed. Holistic ways of managing depression like Sudarshan Kriya are as effective and have no negative side-effects.
(The writer is a senior meditation teacher and Executive Director of Art of Living’s research wing, Sri Sri Institute for Advanced Research.)