Kids as young as 2 can suffer from depression, anxiety
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By Dr Ellapen Rapiti
Children from as young as 2 can suffer from mental illnesses like anxiety and depression but they are often left untreated.
Children, unlike adults, do not know how to verbalise what is bothering them or how to describe anxiety or depression. These often manifest through physical symptoms or odd behaviour – constant headaches, stomach cramps, screaming in their sleep, refusing to go to school, withdrawing from social activities, looking and feeling miserable or becoming disruptive and angry.
The common causes include, divorce, family violence, separation anxiety, parents having a serious illness, death of a parent, fear of failing, doing badly at school, having a chronic illness or a physical deformity and being intimidated or teased by bullies, peers and gangs. The worst is after they are sexually abused and it is brushed under the carpet.
A 15-year old female, presented to me, had lost about 10kgs in two months. She said she always had stomach pains. Her dad informed me that his daughter complained of stomach pains from the age of eight but they hadn’t found a reason for it. I suspected that the child might be suffering from anxiety.
After gentle probing, she said she was worried about her marks. She studied hard and would be disappointed when she didn’t do as well as expected.
I was glad there was no parental pressure for her to do well, because parental pressure is often a factor in their depression and anxiety. I was impressed by her comment that she wanted to do well, so that she could go to college and make a difference in her country.
She felt relieved and encouraged when I told her one doesn’t have to be a genius to do good. I told her I admired her for caring for the people in her country. Children need to be recognised and acknowledged for their good qualities. It’s a great moral booster and helps them develop their self-esteem.
Her face lit up when I told her that doing her best was good enough, because no one judges you by your grades but by your character.
Positive words and some words of advice to her dad made a difference. We identified her weight loss was due to her worrying.
It made me wonder how many children suffer without being either noticed or counselled. It explained why 50% of youth die through suicide. The sad part is that their anxiety or depression is rarely diagnosed. This is because mental health is given the least attention in medical schools and in government health budgets.
Children generally don’t speak to their parents either because of fear or they don’t know how to express their fears. My advice to parents who have children who constantly complain of symptoms that cannot be explained medically, is to get them to a counsellor.
Governments and society must do more to alleviate the pain and suffering of people with mental illnesses. As the world grapples with Covid-19, we are going to see rise in mental illnesses due to isolation, poverty, starvation, severe job losses, homelessness and salary cuts.
There is more to mental illnesses than the lay person’s flippant dismissal that it is “something in the mind that people must just get over”. You don’t get over it, you treat it.
Dr Ellapen Rapiti is a health-care practitioner, specialising as a family physician.