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Special Needs and Depression

By Judy Loseff Lavin, M.S.W.
Author of Special Kids Need Special Parents

Sadly, more and more teens and children are suffering from depression. According to a 1996 Journal of The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry survey from the National Institute of Mental Health in Maryland, 2.5 percent of children and up to 8.3 percent of adolescent teens suffer from this disease.

Depression differs from sadness or grieving because it is a brain disorder. Although it is highly treatable, depression affects the way someone sees the world as well as the way he acts and feels. It is not uncommon for those who suffer from depression to fail in school, turn to alcohol or drugs to help themselves improve their spirits or in the most extreme cases, take their own lives in an attempt to stop their pain.

Children with special needs, other than depression, are at a higher risk for this condition. They struggle with emotional issues in addition to their physical or mental limitations and those struggles can make them extremely sad. What’s more, it’s not uncommon for special kids to feel excluded or set apart from their peers which leads to extra stress and depressed feelings. In 1995 the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry stated that “Youths under stress who experience a loss or who have attention, learning or conduct disorders are at a higher risk for depression.” It also said that one-third of six to twelve year olds diagnosed with major depression develop bipolar disorder within a few years.

Many parents of children with special needs blame themselves for the depression or the child’s suicidal thoughts. A child’s or teen’s depression my have little to do with the parent or how much he or she loves the child. That depression may have much more to do with how a child copes with his struggles. It’s important to recognize and deal with your child’s pain in a way that can help him reframe his feelings and begin to see the positives in his life.

Awareness is one of the most important things a parent can do when dealing with depression. It’s a good idea to learn to recognize some symptoms of depression. They are:

* Continued sadness and feelings of hopelessness
* Withdrawing from friends and activities that were enjoyed
* Increased anger, irritability, agitation—a decreased frustration level
* Inability to perform well in school or missing school repeatedly
* Changes in one’s eating or sleeping habits
* Inability to make decisions or concentrate
* Forgetfulness
* Guilty feelings and low self esteem
* Lack of enthusiasm, poor motivation and low energy
* Abusing drugs or alcohol
* Continued feelings of discomfort, pain and malaise without a physical basis
* Thoughts or talk of killing oneself or focusing on death, particularly as a positive change

It’s interesting to note that clinical depression can both contribute to an eating disorder and that an eating disorder can lead to being clinically depressed, according a 1998 study from Stellefson, Medical University, in North Carolina. There are things parents and others can do if they suspect a child is depressed. First, recognize that there is a problem. Even a child who is trying to manipulate his environment by talking about suicide or depression should be taken seriously. That child is most likely desperate to find a way to change his life but doesn’t see other alternatives. Don’t dismiss a child who’s talking excessively about death or threatening suicide—something is wrong.

Kids with severe disabilities can also suffer from depression. The difference is that their signs of sadness may be more subtle. For example, Johnny may not look up or brighten in his usual manner. If that type of mood persists beyond the ‘normal’ period of time, you have to contact a professional.

One common way kids with special needs end their lives is by ‘forgetting’ to take their medicines. They ‘act’ as if the problem doesn’t exist. They want to be like their vision of typical kids who they believe don’t take medications. Kids with special needs may also put themselves at peril by positioning themselves in a situation that they know is dangerous to them. For example, an individual may put him or herself at the top of a stairway where he or she knows there’s a good chance of getting hurt.

If parents, teachers, doctors or caretakers suspect that a child is thinking of harming himself or committing suicide, it’s crucial to ask the child if he’s considering hurting himself. “Asking someone does not cause a child to hurt himself or take his life,” said Northfield, Illinois-based psychiatrist, Neil Fialkow. If a child is depressed and contemplating suicide, then it’s important to take him or her for a psychological evaluation by a competent social worker, psychologist or psychiatrist. “Teenage years may have challenges, but serious suicidal thoughts or threats are not a normal part of those challenges,” said Dr. Fialkow.

Judith Lavin, M.S.W., author of Special Kids Need Special Parents, and a former journalist with the Chicago Sun-Times, recognized the need for an easy-to-read resource for physically and emotionally exhausted parents like herself, as well as their families, teachers, doctors and others who work with them. Lavin speaks to numerous organizations and parent groups around the nation, giving them inspiration and hope.

Lavin’s work has been featured in numerous publications such as the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Sun-Times, Newsday, Washington Parent and Chicago Parent. In addition, she has appeared  on radio and TV news and talk shows around the U.S., including NBC-TV's Today show, PBS-TV's Small Talk for Parents and the CBS Radio Networks. You can visit Judy at