If there's anything sadder than the idea of clinically depressed
3-year-olds, I can't think of it on this gloriously sunny Friday
afternoon. Preschool, after all, is when the world is supposed to
be at its most magical, full of wonder and possibility and
But researchers say "preschool depression" exists and can affect
children as young as 2 or 3. Detailed in a New York Times' Sunday
magazine piece by Pamela Paul published Friday,
preschool depression is the latest face of the "name game" played
in pediatric diagnosis -- whether it will follow in the footsteps
of A.D.H.D. (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) and O.D.D.
(oppositional defiance disorder) remains to be seen.
The diagnosis is understandably controversial. It's been long
thought that kids' brains just aren't developed enough to get
depressed. Sure, kids are sad when a friend goes on vacation or
when their favorite blanket doesn't make it through the spin cycle,
but to be truly zapped of joy, teetering on the edge of existential
emptiness? Seems a little much to ask of kids still working on
The problem is, that's what the medical establishment thought
about teenagers just a few decades ago: that they were too young to
be depressed. Then all evidence pointed otherwise, and the age
threshold for depression has inched steadily downward:
First adolescents, then grade-school children were considered
too psychologically immature to be depressed. Stigma was a major
fear. "There was this big worry that once you labeled it, you
actually had it," explains Neal Ryan, a professor of child and
adolescent psychiatry at the University of
Pittsburgh. By the early 1990s psychiatrists had come to
recognize that depression occurs in children of 8, 9 and 10.
Paul leaves us with another cautionary note. Things like "he'll
grow out of it" or "it's just a phrase" are commonplace among
parents of youngsters for a reason: They're often true. What are
the consequences of saddling a young child with a clinical
diagnosis when maybe it really is just a phase? There's certainly
less stigma around depression than there once was, but it still
exists, and the rush to overdiagnose serves neither the child nor
But for cases of true depression among youngsters -- and the
article provides plenty that will break your heart -- there is one
bright spot. Children, because of their still rapidly developing
brains, may actually be more receptive to treatments than
adults, in whom depression is notoriously hard to cure. The lessons
learned from autism over the past decade -- that early intervention
can make a huge difference -- may apply similarly to
preschool depression, experts say.
New York Times: Can Preschoolers Be
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