Depression in children and young people – Dr Annie Swanepoel

Why do young people get depressed? They have their whole lives ahead of them. Yet so many are feeling down and even think about harming themselves or ending their lives.

There are many theories about depression and its causes. The best theory I have come across is that of thinking about depression as our mind metaphorically pulling the handbrake if it feels we are going the wrong way. Depression is a biological response.

Depression in children often manifests with sadness and loss of joy, whereas in teenagers it is often characterised by intense irritability. Depression is a serious state and can lead to self-harm and suicide.

When talking to a child with depression, I always try to find out whether they feel they are on the right path, but don’t have a chance of success – or whether they feel they are on the wrong path. I have spoken to many teenagers who have become depressed after their parents made them choose certain subjects, go to a particular school, or mix with certain friends. They then go through the motions of living the life their parents want for them, but their heart is not in it.

I have also seen children who are living the life they always thought they wanted, but then become depressed when they think that they will not succeed. It is really important that we teach children that it is OK to not be perfect and to not be the best. We must remember that in an average class of thirty children, only one can be the top student. The other 29 cannot. If we set a goal for our children, or indeed if they set a goal for themselves which they then cannot reach, it can lead to depression.

What can parents do if their child is depressed? First of all, try and talk to them about how they are feeling. It can help to do an activity together, for example walking, or driving in the car, which enables proximity without direct eye contact. Ask if there is anything troubling them and let them know that you care about them. The two most common reasons for teenage depression is that they feel pressured with exams and that they are not satisfied with their appearance.

Explain that you felt that way too when you were a teenager. Let them know that the teenage years are difficult, but that they become easier as the body and brain continue to grow. Tell them that you love them as they are and that they are important to you. Share that you would like them to relax and have fun and do things together that they used to enjoy. If at all possible, try and get them to eat fruit and vegetables and to get exercise. Most of all, help them realise that exams are not the most important thing in the world and that there are many routes to a happy life. Don’t be afraid to ask about self-harm or suicidal thoughts and if they admit to it, thank them for their honesty and arrange for them to get help. Try not to criticise them at all, as they are hypersensitive to negative feedback while depressed.

Allow them to change their course in life and to find something they care about and encourage them to experiment until they do. That will help their mind release the handbrake and go full-steam ahead. That will let the depression lift.

-Dr Annie Swanepoel, Clinical Director CAMHS and Consultant Child & Adolescent Psychiatrist


Potters Bars Clinic offers CAMHS Tier 4 low secure services for young people aged 13 to 18 with a wide range of disorders and complex needs. Our aim is to deliver, treat and empower each young person to live a safe and independent life and reach their individual potential.

To make a referral, please call Ronnie McClung, Referrals Manager Potters Bar Clinic:
01707 858585 Mobile: 07387419215

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