Techniques to Spot Childhood Depression During the Covid-19 Pandemic
Life in quarantine presents unique challenges, especially for children, and not to mention parents who are now forced to work from home. Sure, countries are gradually reopening, but children—especially those in the primary and middle school age bracket—and older adults are most likely to be instructed to remain indoors as much as possible. Moreover, children from this age bracket cannot be expected to stringently follow physical distancing norms at all costs. This is not to say that they are incapable of doing so, but only to acknowledge the difficulties of ensuring strict distancing measures at schools.
It is also unfair to rely almost entirely on teachers, caregivers, or other personnel to ensure distancing at schools. It is therefore safe to assume that children from this age group might be learning from their homes for the foreseeable future.
Difficulties Involved in Spotting Childhood Depression
Remaining indoors for extended periods of time poses particular challenges to children’s mental health. They may withdraw to a significant extent (if not altogether), or they may act out. These are, to be sure, fairly normal reactions. Once again this is not to say that children do not or cannot understand the significance of mass quarantining, this unprecedented public health experiment. Rather, it is to acknowledge that confinement for extended periods is challenging for children and adults alike, no matter how sincere the efforts to cope with life in quarantine.
As it is, it is difficult to differentiate between temporary sadness and mood swings and more prolonged states of sadness among children. The latter is one of the main symptoms of childhood depression, which has for a while now been recognized as a widespread condition. For instance, as of 2017, one in eight children aged 5-19 in the UK have at least one mental disorder. Similarly, as of 2018, nearly 4.4 million US children aged 3-17 have diagnosed anxiety, and 1.9 million children from the same age group have diagnosed depression. Notably, these studies also show that mental disorders and conditions increase with age regardless of gender. Which means early detection and timely professional help might not only enable children to develop valuable coping strategies; they might also encourage children to discuss issues of mental health openly, thereby destigmatizing the discourse surrounding the issue.
Childhood depression and stress tend to be especially hard to detect: for instance, it is easy to mistake a tantrum for either of these conditions. Similarly, it is just as easy to neglect prolonged presence of symptoms as a one-off instance. Nonetheless, monitoring for stress and depression may be a tad easier during a lockdown. Why? Because parents and children mostly have nowhere else to be, monitoring children’s mental health is slightly easier than it was a few months back. Although this is surely an additional burden on parents who now find themselves working from home, it is very much doable.
Foremost, it is important to know the signs and symptoms of depression. Next, it is essential to keep track of the frequency and severity of displayed symptoms. It is also equally important to be on the lookout for more symptoms. Common, reliable symptoms include fatigue, irritability, and indifference. Of course, as mentioned above, these can all be mere reactions to normal and abnormal events alike. The key, therefore, is to be able to tell if children seem persistently tired, irritable, and indifferent.
So here is a short checklist to illustrate what it means to monitor for prolonged symptoms:
(i) noting the frequency and severity of symptoms
(ii) checking whether particular situations or environments tend to trigger symptoms
(iii) observing if children appear more sad, indifferent, and uncooperative than usual
How Cognitive and Behavioral Psychology Can Help
The insights generated by cognitive and behavioral psychology are especially applicable in this context. Here’s why. First, I’d like to assure readers that the insights we can glean from these perspectives are directly relevant to everyday life and life in quarantine. They are remarkably easy to understand, and this does not in any way involve wading through jargon. This is because these insights appeal directly to our experience.
For instance, cognitive psychology holds that linguistic expression, attention span, and patterns of thinking are important and reliable indicators of mental states. More specifically, it urges us to assess physical symptoms in relation to mental processes. Therefore, while keeping an eye out for symptoms of childhood depression we must also regularly and necessarily monitor children’s use of language and how they communicate.
This is essential for two reasons:
(i) because the primary symptoms of depression are defined and discernible in terms of sadness, hopelessness, and mood swings
(ii) to overcome the challenges involved in differentiating between (a) temporary sadness and depressive sadness and (b) lethargy and fatigue
In general, as Bruce Goldstein shows in his work “Cognitive Psychology,” sadness, hopelessness, and mood swings can be discerned through our use of language. Moreover, focusing on language enables us to ask children the right questions; that is, it equips us to ask serious, empathetic questions without alienating children.
For instance, there is a world of difference between a statement like “I don’t like this show, it’s boring” and “I’m unable to feel happy.” The second statement is worrying in that it is likely an indicator of prolonged sadness. In this context, questions such as “I realize you’re not feeling well. How can I help?” can elicit honest responses from children.
Should such questions fail, however, we can always draw from the disciplinary perspective of behavioral psychology.
In a nutshell, behavioral psychology, or behaviorism, posits links between human behavior and the environment. It holds that human behavior is a direct response to and consequence of external stimuli. The essence of this discipline is its view that the best way to predict human behavior is by modifying and conditioning it.
Therefore, it is deeply useful to monitor how children react to situations and environments. If you notice that a particular setting tends to upset your child, acknowledge it. Acknowledging their discomfort involves understanding why certain aspects of a setting tend to cause distress and modifying them to alleviate discomfort. Sometimes children may not be able to express exactly what it is they find discomforting or stressful. In these cases, it is important to pay attention to how they express their discomfort and make proactive changes to their environment. This, to be sure, might involve trial and error.
For instance, if your child finds it deeply unpleasant to study by the window, try and make some changes. This involves asking where else your child might be comfortable. More importantly, however, give them the freedom to make and remake their settings.
Some observers argue that cognitive and behavioral psychology are irreconcilable. While that may be true to a certain extent, it is undeniably fruitful to combine the insights generated by these disciplinary perspectives. Especially since one takes off from exactly whether the other recedes: they are complementary.
A final note:
These are only tips to help you spot symptoms of childhood depression and stress. Please seek professional help if children display symptoms of depression and stress for two weeks or more.