One of the most common responses on hearing that a child has depression is, 'But what does he/she have to be depressed about?' While it is possible that 'depression' is overdiagnosed in young children, some children do suffer from depression. Recognising and tackling the problem early may be more important than whether or not you use drugs. Indeed, brain scans of children with mood disorders have shown that electrical activity in the brain can return to normal whether or not drugs are used. The key appears to be finding the right treatment for the given child (Arch Gen Psychiatry, 1992; 49: 681-9) and supporting the recovery.
* Talking works better than drugs. Unlike treatment with medication, psychotherapy requires a significant commitment by both parents and children. Nevertheless, studies show it is more effective and produces longer-lasting improvement than drugs. Give your chosen therapy (or therapist) at least three months before assessing effectiveness.
* Low self-esteem is a major contributor to childhood depression. Parents can improve self-esteem in their children by improving communication, setting clear expectations and limits, and nurturing a sense of responsibility.
* Physical activity can help relieve or manage depression. Exercise also has the benefit of improving body image in adolescents. Non-competitive activities such as swimming are more appropriate than those with 'winners' and 'losers' (Am Fitness, 1993; 11: 24-6).
* Teach your kids to cope with stress. This may mean going on a course yourself and sharing what you have learned with your child. Similarly, speak to your child's teachers and ask them to consider initiating a school programme that teaches coping and social skills. Reports suggest that school-based programmes are often effective for students at risk for depression (J Sch Health, 1995; 65: 390-4).
* Companion illnesses. Depression often goes hand-in-hand with other mental illnesses or disorders, including attention-deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and, especially in teenage girls, eating disorders and self-injury. Thyroid imbalances, parasites and Candida overgrowth can also cause depression. If any of these conditions are present, they need to be treated along with the depression for a long-lasting or permanent cure.
* Ask questions about proposed drugs. Ask your physician and pharmacist about potential interactions and adverse effects. Learn as much as you can about any medications the child is currently taking and, if possible, seek independent information to confirm what your doctor has told you. Remember: drugs that are not medically appropriate can make depression worse.
* Reactions to medications such as antibiotics, asthma medicines, heart drugs, anticancer drugs, pain relievers, immunosuppressants and cough medicines can all cause depression. If your child is taking any of these, it could be the root of the problem.
* Maintain a regular and nutritious diet. Don't let your child skip meals, and do avoid foods that are high in sugar or caffeine as well as preservatives, flavourings and colourants. A good diet is a critical source of energy and nutrition while your child is recovering from depression. In addition, you may wish to consult a qualified nutritionist as deficiencies in certain nutrients, such as B vitamins, essential fatty acids and some minerals, can also be associated with depression.
* A regular sleep cycle maintains energy, whereas an irregular sleep pattern prolongs or worsens symptoms of depression. Avoid letting the child sleep or nap during the day even when it is difficult for him/her to sleep at night.
* Consult a qualified homoeopath. Case studies suggest that several remedies, such as Aurum, Natrum muriaticum, Aurum muriaticum natronatum and Stramonium, in very high, single doses (200 C to 1 M) can help ease the symptoms of depression.
* Toxic exposures to metals, dioxins, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and organochlorine/organophosphate pesticides/solvents are very common, and can cause the sort of hormonal and neurotransmitter imbalances associated with depression (Townsend Lett Docs, 2001; 210: 64-72). Mercury exposure, usually through vaccines and amalgam fillings, may be particularly influential. Consider having your child tested for toxic overload.