Matthew Rozsa discusses new developments that improve our understanding of early childhood depression.
Do you want to read an observation about depression that is, well, depressing? I turn to a recent comment by Dr. Joan Luby, the director of the Early Emotional Development Program at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis:
“Nobody believed preschoolers could get depressed. People generally assumed children under the age of six were too developmentally immature to experience the core emotions of depression. I am not sure the zeitgeist has changed as dramatically is it probably should, given the data that’s available.”
In fact, as the Time Magazine article that interviewed Dr. Luby clearly demonstrates, it behooves Americans to take early childhood depression much more seriously. Scientific studies have proved that kids as young as three can have major depression, and when they do, the cortical gray matter in their brains that regulate emotions undergo unique changes. “Brain imaging showed that the children with depression lost more volume and thickness of their cortical gray matter as time went on than the kids without depression,” explains reporter Alexandra Sifferlin, noting Dr. Luby’s discovery that 3-to-5 year olds who had been diagnosed with depression were more than twice as likely to exhibit symptoms of depression through middle school… and, I would personally argue, throughout the rest of their lives.
From there Dr. Luby goes on to explain that “there has not been enough research into how to effectively treat the disorder” and advocates a form of therapy that she developed (called Parent Child Interaction Therapy – Emotion Development) to help children who are depressed. While I don’t doubt that her observations about current treatment options are accurate, and lack enough information about PCIT-ED to assess whether it works or not, I can’t help but wonder… To what extent could this problem be effectively addressed if we actually listened to children when they tell us how they feel?
Let me explain what I mean with a personal story. Back when I was seven, I first began to notice that other children in school mistreated me because I was “different.” At the time, neither my parents nor anyone else in my immediate environment knew about Asperger’s Syndrome (to say nothing of the possibility that I had it), but they did know that other kids bullied and rejected me on a regular basis. What’s more, I remember the very specific words I used to explain why this bothered me – namely, that even when I wasn’t being ridiculed by the popular kids or told that I had no friends, “I always feel like people are picking on me.”
Even though I had no concept of depression or social anxiety disorders at that time, in retrospect I was clearly warning the adults around me that the misery I felt when I was being actively bullied continued to linger long after the individual acts of mistreatment had subsided. Although I wasn’t articulate enough to explain this beyond simply stating that I always felt picked on, I’m surprised and dismayed that I don’t recall a single adult in my environment taking me seriously on my own terms. This isn’t because I don’t remember how they responded at all; in fact, I have countless memories of being told to “just ignore it” whenever I opened up to an authority figure about what I was experiencing and how it made me feel.
None of this is meant to simplify the problem of depression or dismiss the suggestions made by Dr. Luby. This is a complicated issue that transcends easy understanding, and it would be irresponsible of me to imply otherwise. At the same time, I can write this article as an adult who – for quite literally as long as he can remember – has suffered from depression and anxiety because the people who had a responsibility to listen to him chose not to. It’s hard for me to avoid the conclusion that, if they had only taken me seriously when I told them how I felt at the time, my brain would be structurally different than it is today… and that I might be happier as a result.
If we actually care about our children and want to avoid repeating the previous generation’s mistakes, this is our cue that we must start listening to them.