Should preschoolers be screened for depression? A new study says that children ages 3 to 5 years old can definitely suffer from depression, but screening may not help because there is no recognized treatment for kids that age.
The research team from Washington University in St. Louis, found that not only are some preschoolers experiencing depression, but those that do are two and a half times more likely to continue to have bouts of the disorder in elementary and middle school.
They also added that recognizing depression in young children could help make treatment more effective later.
"It's the same old bad news about depression; it is a chronic and recurrent disorder," child psychiatrist Dr. Joan Luby, who directs the university's Early Emotional Development Program, said in a university news release.
"But the good news is that if we can identify depression early, perhaps we have a window of opportunity to treat it more effectively," Luby said. That could "potentially change the trajectory of the illness so that it is less likely to be chronic and recurring," she added.
The study involved 246 preschool children, ranging from ages 3 to 5 years old. The team evaluated the children for depression and other psychiatric conditions over time.
The children and their caregivers participated in six yearly assessments as well as four semiannual assessments. Specifically, the caregivers were asked about their child's sadness, irritability, guilt, sleep and appetite, as well as reduced enjoyment in activities or playtime.
The researchers also evaluated interactions between the caregivers and their children through a two-way mirror. This was done to determine if part of the reason why children had ongoing symptoms of depression was because they lacked nurturing by their parents.
When the study began, 74 children were diagnosed with depression. Six years later, 79 of the children met the criteria for clinical depression, including about half of the 74 kids originally diagnosed.
On the other hand, just 24 percent of the remaining 172 children that were not diagnosed with depression, went on to develop depression later.
The study also noted that the children at highest risk for depression were school-age youngsters whose mothers had suffered from depression.
Mothers appeared to play a very important role in the child’s development. Being diagnosed with a conduct disorder while in preschool also boosted a child's risk for depression later on in elementary or middle school. However, this risk was reduced if children had a lot of support from their mother, the researchers noted.
The big-take-away from the study was that the risk for depression was greatest for the kids who were diagnosed with the condition while they were in preschool, Luby’s team reported.
"Preschool depression predicted school-age depression over and above any of the other well-established risk factors," Luby said. "Those children appear to be on a trajectory for depression that's independent of other psychosocial variables."
The researchers believe that preschoolers as young as 3 years old should be regularly screened for depression. But they also understand why that can be a problem since there are no effective treatments for young children, they noted.
"The reason it hasn't yet become a huge call to action is because we don't yet have any proven, effective treatments for depressed preschoolers," Luby explained. "Pediatricians don't usually want to screen for a condition if they can't then refer patients to someone who can help."
If you suspect your preschooler may be depressed, or would like to know the symptoms of child depression, talk with your pediatrician or family doctor to learn more about it. If you have a family history of depression, mention this to your pediatrician or family doctor so they can help you keep an eye on any symptoms that may begin to pop-up with your little one.