Back-to-school blues? Warning signs of depression

Melissa Erickson
Warning signs of depression

Transitioning from the freedom-filled days of summer to attention-sapping school days can make kids of all ages feel down. When a child is dragging and dreading the school year, how can parents know when it’s more than just the basic blues?

Youth suicide statistics are shocking. Suicide is the second-leading cause of death for ages 10-24 and the third-leading cause of death for college-age youth and ages 12-18, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More teenagers and young adults die from suicide than from cancer, heart disease, AIDS, birth defects, stroke, pneumonia, influenza and chronic lung disease, combined.

A child’s mental health is especially important as she heads back to school or off to college, said psychotherapist Amy Morin, author of “13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do.”

“For kids with mental health issues, the start of the school year can be very difficult. Fears about the new school year may lead to anxiety weeks, or even months, before the first day of school,” Morin said. “If the start of the school year doesn’t go well, a sense of dread may set in, which can be extremely harmful to a child’s mental health.”

Warning signs

Parents should be concerned when a child’s feelings about school begin to interfere with his daily life, she said.

“If he can’t enjoy the last few days of summer or if he’s frequently asking questions about what to expect from school this year, he’s likely experiencing more concern than most kids,” Morin said.

To see how your child is coping, take a good look at her.

“Depressed kids look a little different than depressed adults,” Morin said. “Rather than sadness, depression tends to look more like irritability in kids. Unfortunately, many parents think their child’s agitation stems from adolescent mood swings, and a child’s depression goes undiagnosed.”

Changes in behavior can be another indicator of depression. A child who stops playing sports or one who starts staying home all the time may be experiencing a mental health issue, Morin said. Sleep difficulties are also common among kids with depression. Many of them stay up all hours of the night, then have difficulty waking for school, she said.

“Parents should look for behavioral changes, like increased defiance or increased withdrawal. They should also listen to what a child says about school. Parents shouldn’t ignore statements like, ‘No one likes me,’ or ‘I’m going to get picked on,’” Morin said.

If you’re concerned, “ask questions, such as, ‘What do you think the best part of the school year will be?’ and if a child struggles to find anything good, it could be a sign he’s struggling with depression,” Morin said.

Missed homework assignments or declining grades may also signal depression.

“If a child who usually performs well misses homework assignments or struggles to score well on tests, parents should keep an eye out for a mental health issue,” Morin said.

Seeking help

How do you know when your child may need professional help dealing with their mental health?

“Parents should take any threats of suicide very seriously. Most kids say something several times before they make any actual attempts of suicide. Never assume your child is just trying to get attention,” Morin said. “Self-harm should also be taken seriously. Children who cut themselves or burn themselves should be evaluated by a mental health professional.”

If parents are questioning whether a child could be depressed, speak to your child’s pediatrician and ask if what you’re seeing is normal and if your child needs further evaluation.

“Like most mental health issues, depression is very treatable,” Morin said. “Parents often avoid treatment because they’re not sure if it’s necessary or they worry that their child will be labeled. Treatment with a mental health professional is confidential and it’s best to err on the side of caution. Depression can be lethal.”