My first encounter with a child who was suffering from depression was when I was 16 years old. My summer job was as an orderly on the pediatric wig of a hospital. As an orderly, my job was diverse — change bed sheets, bathe patients, deliver meals, take patients to surgery (like the Certified Nursing Assistant today). As a young person myself, I was not prepared for watching children suffer in the hospital. The child I am referring to was a 9-year-old boy whom I will call Michael. As I remember him, the strings of my heart pull taught. Michael had come to the hospital for a routine operation. My job was to transport him to and from his surgery. When I returned Michael to his room, I noticed his room was empty. His parents were not there waiting for him. As I helped him back to bed, he began to cry, so I talked to him of baseball, the upcoming July 4 holiday, anything to distract him. When I left his room, I asked the head nurse, “Where are Michael’s parents?” She told me that after his parents signed him in, they got into a bitter fight and said they would return when the surgery was over. Michael’s parents were in a divorce war. Stunned by this, I decided to spend my break time with Michael. Back in his room, I asked Michael, “Why aren’t your parents here with you?” He replied, “I was sent here as a punishment.” The word punishment fell on me like a 1,000-pound weight. How could he believe that?
This is what Michael’s statement, “I’m being punished,” means: Children, under the age of 10, take events in a very personal way. Their thinking, unlike adults, is not logical or based in reality. For example, when my daughter was young and we were walking, she would see the moon, and say, “Daddy, the moon is following me,” or when a butterfly landed on her shoulder, she would reply, “It likes me.”
Michael’s logic went like this — “My parents are upset with me because I heard them arguing about who was going to take me to the hospital. It’s my fault, I’m bad, and I need to be punished.” This logic is what I call 1+1=3, there is something wrong with me, I am bad, and will be bad forever. Michael’s depression is what child psychologists call a cognitive depression. This means that the child has developed a negative belief system, using their own thoughts that explain their world. Children’s depression begins as a thinking depression. If it is ignored (as it often is), it can grow into the adult form of depression, where the body becomes involved (sleeping, eating, energy levels), and feelings become involved (sadness, crying).
Parents, teachers, and care-givers can use the following warning signs of childhood depression. If you notice any of these signs, contact a mental health professional:
1. Extreme negativity in verbal statements (I hate myself, I want to die, I’m ugly).
2. Self-cutting on arms, legs, or other skin surfaces.
3. Chronic school failure.
4. Poor concentration and indecisiveness.
5. Extreme irritability, defiance, anger outbursts, physical aggression.
6. Strong social withdrawal and isolation.
Michael’s story changed me, and was one reason I decided to become a psychologist. However, this story about a 9-year-old boy in the early stages of clinical depression, speaks more to the role that we, as parents, teachers, care-givers, must play toward our children. The power of Michael’s story illustrates how fragile, delicate, and vulnerable the mind of a child is. So, in turn, we must always take the role of protectors, child advocates, and supporters of children, to champion their lives toward adulthood.
The content of this article is for educational purposes only, and should not be used as a substitute for treatment by a professional. The characters in this story are not real. Names and details have been changed to protect confidentiality.