More threads by David Baxter PhD

David Baxter PhD

Late Founder
What are the risk factors for childhood depression?
by Deborah Gray
Monday, October 22, 2007

I had untreated clinical depression starting from a young age. When I was finally diagnosed at age 27, I started trying to figure out why this had happened to me.

Why would a child suffer from depression? What are the factors that can combine to create depression in a young child? In many cases, one of the usual suspects is a family history of mental illness. But there was no such history on either side of my family. So I started looking for other explanations.

What I found was very interesting to me, as a few of the risk factors had been present in my life before my depression. Here are some of the risk factors that are thought to contribute to childhood depression:

  • Genetic susceptibility
  • Gender (girls are thought to be more susceptible to depression than boys)
  • Life changes (divorce of parents, loss of a family member or friend, moving)
  • Low self-esteem
  • Major trauma, such as a natural disaster
  • Other psychiatric disorders
  • Academic or athletic failure
  • Physical, emotional or verbal abuse
No one factor on its own is likely to cause depression. But think of each of these risks as a separate storm beating on a weak tree branch. Each on its own is unlikely to make that branch crack. But taken all together, the battering eventually does the job.

The first storm that weakened my branch, I believe, was the loss of my biological father, Stephen, through his divorce from my mother. Since we moved across the country to live with my grandparents after the divorce, I almost never saw him when I was growing up. I think my sister and I saw him somewhere around 8 or 10 times, and we talked on the phone, for the most part, only on birthdays or holidays.

I would say that the other risk factors present in my life that led to my depression were other psychiatric disorders (ADHD and OCD), multiple moves (at least five before I turned eight), low self-esteem, academic and athletic failure, and bullying. My stepfather's year serving in Viet Nam when I was five probably added to some extent to this mix.

I think that I can identify the storm that finally led to my depression. When I was seven, we moved to a town that placed a heavy emphasis on athletics. To say that I wasn't good at sports is definitely an understatement. I wasn't good at sports and I had no interest in them. This, combined with the fact that I was shy, made me the butt of jokes, teasing and even some physical abuse. I don't remember feeling as sad before this move as I did afterward.

There's a good reason to be aware of these risk factors for depression. If depression in a child is caught early enough and treated, it might not become permanent. Mine wasn't recognized and treated (no one knew in those days that children could be depressed) and not only was my childhood through my young adulthood punctuated by many depressed periods, but my depression is permanent and will have to be treated the rest of my life.
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