A few years ago, my mother unearthed some pictures of me as a baby which I had never seen before. One showed me at about eight months old, crawling on the grass of Golden Gate Park. I was looking directly at the camera, my tongue sticking out of the corner of my mouth, and I was laughing. My face was lit from within, and looked happy, confident and even a little mischievous.
I was absolutely transfixed by that photograph for days. I would continually take it out of my wallet and stare at it, torn between laughter and tears. For a while I couldn’t figure out what it was about the picture that drew me. Finally it hit me; this was the only picture of myself as a child that I had seen which showed me laughing. All the photos I had ever seen depicted a child staring solemnly or smiling diffidently, but never laughing. I looked at the Golden Gate Park picture and wished that I had remained that happy, and that depression had not taken away my childhood.
Most of my childhood was blighted by clinical depression. After I was diagnosed at age 27, my parents told me that they knew something was wrong, but didn’t know what. Not surprising, since I grew up in the 1960s and 70s, and depression in children wasn’t even considered a possibility until the 1980s. But even today, years after the medical community acknowledged that children could be clinically depressed, it is not easy to recognize.
There are a couple of reasons why this is the case. Although more and more people are becoming aware that clinical depression is not a mood but a disease, there are still plenty of people who don’t realize that. So while they might be able to find reasons why an adult might be depressed (trouble with the person’s job or marriage, financial difficulties, etc.) there are generally few reasons that a child might be displaying a sad demeanor, barring major loss of some kind or a dysfunctional home life.
When I was finally diagnosed with depression at age 27, after twenty years of suffering from one type of depressive disorder or another, it was because I was going through a major depression at that particular time. It was only the third major depression I had experienced, and all three had occurred after the age of twenty. For all their ferocity, however, I don’t feel that the major depressions did the most damage to my social life, the direction my life took and my psyche. Without question, that honor is reserved for the dysthymia that had been a part of my life, and a part of me, since I was seven.
A few years ago, my mother found a picture of me as a baby crawling on the grass. For days, I couldn’t figure out what was so odd about the picture. It finally dawned on me that I was grinning in it, and with the exception of school pictures, I had never seen a photo of myself with anything more than a tentative half-smile. For the most part I looked serious, detached and sometimes, sad.
The psychiatrist who first told me, “I believe that you’re suffering from depression” might have been a bit surprised at how relieved I was. But for me, the diagnosis was a relief. I had known most of my life that something was wrong with me. I was thrilled that this something had a name and could be treated.
My psychiatrist felt it was clear that I had been suffering from depression, in one form or another, since I was a child. It may seem hard to believe that someone could go undiagnosed for so many years, but there were a couple of factors at work. The first was that I grew up in the 1960s and 70s. No one believed back then that children could suffer from depression. My parents did know that something was wrong with me, but they had no idea what it was or what to do. More importantly, however, my depression went unnoticed because I suffered from dysthymic disorder, not major depression.
Major depressive disorder (MDD) and Dysthymic Disorder (more commonly known as dysthymia) do have a lot in common. Both are marked by a low mood, low self-esteem, fatigue or low energy, indecisiveness and hopelessness. According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV-TR) “Dysthymic Disorder and Major Depressive Disorder are differentiated based on severity, chronicity and persistence.“
In other words, MDD and dysthymia are like rain storms. Both of them drop water from the sky. But if major depression is like a violent thunderstorm, like a thunderstorm it usually passes fairly quickly (although it may seem like an eternity). Dysthymic disorder is like a steady drizzle under a gray sky that goes on and on for days.
Dysthymia is considered early onset dysthymic disorder (EODD) when the symptoms begin before the age of 21. Unfortunately, EODD can be very tricky to spot. After all, if a child has had EODD from an early age, before her personality has been fully formed, how does she (or her parents) know that she suffers from a depressive disorder?
But diagnosis and treatment of EODD is absolutely essential. A child who grows up under the influence of a depressive disorder is going to be at a tremendous disadvantage, not to mention how miserable his childhood is going to be.
Even if I had suffered from major depressions during my childhood, they would not have as much damage as the dysthymia. The drizzle and gray sky that went on day after day, eroding my sense of self and keeping me from being anything other than a spectator in life, was the real devastating force. And under that gray sky I made a lot of important decisions that set me on certain paths: what interests to develop, what type of friends to choose, how to prioritize school and play, where to go to college, what to study in college and who to date. Without question, many of those decisions would have been different if I didn’t have EODD.
Don’t just assume that your child is negative, apathetic, anti-social and lacking in ambition. It’s possible that EODD has been a part of his life so long that the symptoms have woven themselves into your (and their) perception of his personality. If your child has been exhibiting any of the symptoms of depression, even in a milder form, it is crucial that you consult a professional.
Children with special needs have always been a favorite target for bullying and teasing. It’s easy to see why – they’re different. Except for the occasional rebel, most children don’t want to be stand out from the crowd. Being different is generally not seen as a good thing. Certainly, no child wants to be different because they have special needs.
In a small study presented at the Pediatric Academic Societies annual meeting on April 29th, researchers claim that children with special needs who are bullied or shunned by their peers are at a greater risk for anxiety and depression. And surprisingly, it is this, more than any aspect of their disability and its challenges, that was a predictor of depression and anxiety.
The researchers recruited 109 children from ages 8 to 17 during a routine visit to their physician at a children’s hospital. The children and their parents or guardians completed a questionnaire that screens for depression and anxiety, and the children also completed a questionnaire that asked them about bullying and exclusion from their peers.