Although there is no evidence of higher rates of depression and suicide among intellectually or academically gifted students, depression is epidemic among children and adolescents in general. As many as 10 percent of children suffer from depression before age 12. Rates of depression are higher now than they have ever been, and they are expected to continue to increase. Also, the onset of depression is occurring at younger ages than ever before. Depression is considered the common cold of mental disorders, yet parents are less likely than teenagers to identify serious depression. Every parent should be familiar with the symptoms and how to respond to them.
Common symptoms of depression include persistent sadness or irritability, loss of interest in activities, difficulty in or excessive sleeping, low self-esteem, loss of energy, and difficulty in concentrating. Other indicators of depression in young people include frequent headaches or stomachaches; outbursts of crying, complaining, or shouting; extreme sensitivity to rejection or failure; recklessness; and underachievement.
Even though depression may pass in a few months, the negative effects can last much longer. Substance abuse, social difficulties, and increased risk of suicide are all associated with depression, and depression that begins in childhood often recurs during adolescence and adulthood.
Parents who suspect that their child is depressed can intervene in several ways. One is to reduce or eliminate their child’s consumption of sugar and caffeine, which destabilize moods. A second is to increase the child’s level of exercise, especially if he or she has not been recently active. Even resistant or very depressed children can usually be persuaded to walk the dog with Mom or Dad or to go for a bike ride. A third is to encourage the child to maintain social relationships. Gifted students, who have few opportunities to build relationships with true peers, are especially prone to social isolation. If the child’s school does not provide times for gifted children to work or play together, then the parents must seek those opportunities elsewhere.
Although many depressed young people recover on their own, the likelihood of relapse is much higher for them than for those who receive treatment. A school counselor can do a quick screening if parents suspect that their child is depressed. The Children’s Depression Inventory and the Beck Depression Inventory are two rating scales that can be completed in minutes. Elevated scores suggest the need for a diagnostic evaluation by a mental health professional.
As a rule, depressed children have a pessimistic explanatory style. When something bad happens, they blame themselves, think that it will last forever, and expect everything in their lives to go badly. For this reason, the most effective treatments for depression address the way people think. The best way to prevent depression in children is to help them develop optimistic thinking habits. By modeling, parents can teach them that negative events are temporary, specific to certain circumstances, and not to be taken personally. A marvelous book about teaching these attitudes is Dr. Martin E. P. Seligman et al.’s The Optimistic Child, HarperPerennial Library, 1996.
—Maureen Niehart, PsyD
Dr. Maureen Niehart, a clinical child psychologist in private practice, has worked with gifted children and their families for more than 20 years.