Children with severe symptoms of depression in second and third grade are six times more likely to have skill deficits, such as problems with social skills or academics, compared to non-depressed children, according to a new study at the University of Missouri (MU).
And while depressive symptoms may not always be obvious to parents or teachers, identifying academic or social deficits may help detect either current or future depression in the child.
“The gold standard for identifying children who might be at risk for developing depression later in life is to ask the children themselves,” said Dr. Keith Herman, professor in the MU College of Education.
“However, even if a child doesn’t say they feel depressed, certain outward behaviors might provide clues to the state of the child’s mental health. It’s important for teachers and parents to catch these behaviors early to prevent long-term problems that occur with depression.”
It is also important to note that parents and teachers may be seeing different sides of the same coin, and that both may be correct.
“When you ask teachers and parents to rate a child’s level of depression, there is usually only about 5-10 percent overlap in their ratings. For example, the teacher might report that a child has difficulties making friends in class, but the parent might not notice this issue at home,” said Herman.
“Some people would view that overlap as the truth about a child’s well-being and areas of disagreement as errors, but we need to explore the possibility that they each are seeing different aspects of children’s behavior and mental health.”
For the study, Herman and education professor Dr. Wendy Reinke observed 643 children in early elementary school to investigate how patterns between student, teacher and parent reporting can be used to gain a holistic picture of a child’s mental health.
They discovered that even though 30 percent of the children reported feeling mildly to severely depressed, parents and teachers often failed to recognize the child as depressed. However, teachers and parents were better at identifying other symptoms that might predict long-term risk for depression, such as social problems, inattention and skill deficits.
This could be crucial, as Herman found that the children showing severe signs of depression were six times more likely to have skill deficits than their peers.
Herman said mental health workers can help teachers and parents identify depressive symptoms early by including self-reports from children in mental health evaluations. Screenings also should consider social difficulties, inattention and skill deficits as this might help provide support to at-risk children before they develop further symptoms of depression.
The study is published in the Journal of School Psychology.
As many as 2 to 3 percent of children ages 6-12 might have major depressive disorder, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.
Source: University of Missouri-Columbia
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