Parents 'mistake' signs of depression

SYMPTOMS of serious depression in schoolchildren are often misinterpreted and welcomed by parents as a sign that the teenager is growing out of an 'awkward phase'.

As a result, according to Ian Goodyer, professor of child and adolescent psychiatry at Cambridge University, many cases are missed and go untreated, risking problems in adult life. In fact the child is withdrawing from life, not showing improved behaviour, he said.

His research shows that 3 out of every 100 secondary school children are depressed and need medical care. He warned that symptoms of depression in children were deceptive and surrounded by myths. He added that depression in boys was frequently missed.

Professor Goodyer said yesterday, during Defeat Depression action week, that myths include the accepted view that depressed children are more tearful and that depression is more common in girls.

'Crying may signal depression but it is also true that depressed children do not always cry more.' A better measure was the child who became uninterested in normal things and was withdrawn, he said.

His research has shown that about 5 per cent of those aged 11-16 will be depressed at any one time, and he has found marked differences in stress-hormone levels in depressed children who attend his clinic. 'Half of the 8- to 16-year-olds in the clinic had high levels of the stress hormone cortisol, but low levels of other stress hormone. At present we do not know what this means,' he said.

While up to 90 per cent of his young patients had also experienced problems including family upheavals and 'lots of disappointments', experts still did not know why some children were able to cope with the same problems without becoming depressed: 'With childhood depression I would say we are at about the same stage of understanding as we were with cancer 100 years ago.' It takes a child with serious depression an average of eight months to be referred to a specialist clinic, and then treatment can take a year to be effective. 'Even then, children may remain socially sensitive and need further support,' Professor Goodyer said.