Not long ago a friend of mine mentioned he was concerned about his adolescent son’s extreme moodiness and despair. And recently a mother in my ward commented that she was not sure what to do about her teenage daughter’s feelings of rejection and persistent sadness. Were these isolated instances? Not likely. Contemporary social science research suggests that the incidence of depression in children and adolescents is increasing and that its consequences can be troubling to children and parents alike.
But if “men are, that they might have joy” (2 Ne. 2:25), happiness should not feel forever beyond our reach. In my professional work, I have observed that parents can do much to help a child struggling with depression. And as a Latter-day Saint, I have found that the gospel of Jesus Christ is the source of our greatest peace and joy, and that the Lord provides help for those who earnestly seek Him.
Childhood and adolescence are marked by emotional ups and downs. President Boyd K. Packer of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles has noted: “It was meant to be that life would be a challenge. To suffer some anxiety, some depression, some disappointment, even some failure is normal. … There is great purpose in our struggle in life.”1 Parents and other adults should be careful, therefore, not to mistake an occasional episode of sadness or discouragement for serious depression. Tears and trouble are part of life too.
Chronic or clinical depression, by contrast, generally refers to a condition that lasts over an extended period of time, usually two weeks or longer, and that interferes with normal functioning. Symptoms may include consistent sadness or irritability, general loss of interest in activities, excessive fatigue or low energy, change in appetite, and social withdrawal.
In determining the best way to address the problem of depression in children and teenagers, it is helpful to understand the factors that may contribute to the condition. These may include:
Experiential factors. Difficult life experiences such as the divorce of parents, death of a family member, abuse, or other trauma can result in depression.
Cognitive factors. Negative and pessimistic thoughts may cause or prolong depression. A child with the condition may have distorted thinking and may not interpret events realistically.
Genetic factors. A history of depression among family members may make some children more likely to experience this condition. Parents should know whether others in their immediate or extended family have had depression.
Biochemical factors. Depressive symptoms may occur due to a lack of certain brain chemicals, called neurotransmitters, that affect an individual’s mood and perception. This is often referred to as a chemical imbalance in the brain.
Parents should also understand that when a young person lives contrary to the way he or she has been taught, this can lead to inner conflict and despair (see Moro. 10:22). This can be resolved through repentance. However, it should not be assumed that most cases of clinical depression are caused by unrighteousness.
To understand and identify chronic depression when it occurs is the first step toward making a difference. Parents should be attentive to depressive symptoms in children of any age, but particularly as they grow older, when the condition becomes more common and the consequences more serious. It is important to recognize that chronic depression is a specific illness that often requires intervention just like diabetes or pneumonia. Fortunately, it is highly treatable, and most individuals respond well to a combination of spiritual and social support, medication if necessary, and therapeutic guidance.
Parents can do much to help prevent depression in children or to help them deal with the condition if they already have it. Some ideas include the following:
Teach children that, as sons and daughters of God, they are of inestimable worth. President Gordon B. Hinckley, in counseling young women on self-worth, said: “Know that yours is a divine birthright. … Walk with that dignity which is becoming a young woman who is a daughter of God.”2 Young men should likewise be taught of their divine-heritage and worth.
Pray for your children, and encourage them to say their own personal prayers. Through prayer, children can feel Heavenly Father’s love for them and receive personal revelation for facing their challenges. The beautiful hymn “Sweet Hour of Prayer” reminds us that “in seasons of distress and grief, / [the] soul has often found relief” through the sweetness of prayer.3 And President Ezra Taft Benson (1899–1994) counseled that prayer is “a key to use in keeping depression from destroying us.”4
Help children learn how to apply lessons from the scriptures to their own lives. Children need active guidance from parents to learn how they can apply scriptural examples to their own experiences. Many individuals in the scriptures, while not necessarily experiencing chronic depression, show how to handle difficult feelings or circumstances. Nephi spoke of lingering “in the valley of sorrow” (2 Ne. 4:26); Joseph Smith cried out, “O God, where art thou?” (D&C 121:1); Christ Himself was “a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief” (Isa. 53:3). Parents can help their children see that triumph came for Nephi, the Prophet Joseph Smith, and the Savior as they persevered, refusing to be ruled by negative feelings.
The scriptures are an invaluable source of comfort and hope. One Latter-day Saint who struggled with depression wrote that “the physical, mental, and emotional act of reading the scriptures somehow opened my heart and mind to the possibility of peace.”5
Help children seek counsel from their bishop. President Packer has said that bishops “have a power to soothe and to sanctify and to heal that others are not given.”6 A bishop can give inspired direction for dealing with depression and can help a child learn to draw upon the limitless power of the Atonement.
Foster opportunities for children to master skills that will give them confidence, and encourage them to keep trying. It is important for children to learn that the way they feel is not independent from the way they live. Children who struggle socially or emotionally tend to become more positive and confident as they learn new skills or master certain challenges. Elder Robert D. Hales of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles has counseled: “We learn to endure to the end by learning to finish our current responsibilities. … We cannot expect to learn endurance in our later years if we have developed the habit of quitting when things get difficult now.”7
Help children develop a positive, proactive view of life. Children need to be taught how they can replace negative thoughts and feelings with positive ones. President Hinckley has advised strongly “that each of us turn from the negativism that so permeates our society … that optimism replace pessimism, that our faith exceed our fears.”8
Engage children in service. Meaningful service can be a powerful antidote to feelings of isolation or depression. President Lorenzo Snow (1814–1901) counseled members who feel gloomy to find others to serve. He said, “The first thing you know, your gloom is gone, you feel light, the Spirit of the Lord is upon you, and everything seems illuminated.”9 Service to others can also add needed perspective to a young person’s challenges.
Promote a healthy way of life that includes regular exercise, a nutritious diet, sufficient sleep, and social interaction. As youth follow the counsel contained in the Word of Wisdom, they will find other ways of dealing with difficult feelings rather than abusing alcohol or other harmful substances. Additionally, parents should encourage youth to participate in regular exercise and to get sufficient sleep, both of which are necessary for a balanced state of mind. They should also encourage their children to participate in regular social interaction.
Help your children understand that they can choose how to respond to life’s challenges. Children experiencing depression often need coaching from parents on how to address challenges in positive ways. In particular, parents and other caring adults can help youth learn that agency is granted them so that they may learn “to act for themselves and not to be acted upon” (2 Ne. 2:26).
Seek assistance from qualified medical or clinical personnel if necessary. President Packer has pointed out that “there may be a time when deep-seated emotional problems need more than can be given by the family, the bishop, or the stake president.”10 Children who are clinically depressed cannot simply pull themselves out of it by positive thinking. In addition to spiritual counsel from a bishop, overcoming depression may require assistance from competent professionals in the medical or mental health fields. Bishops may refer parents to LDS Family Services, where its services are available, or may recommend other helpful resources. Care is needed in selecting a counselor, since some professionals do not advocate practices consistent with Church teachings.
Persistent sadness can sap spiritual strength and make a person more vulnerable to Satan’s tools of discouragement and despair. Yet the Savior Jesus Christ came into the world to dispel darkness—indeed, He is as “a light that shineth in a dark place” (2 Pet. 1:19). As parents work with their children to learn and live by principles of gospel light, and as they use needed resources, their children will be better able to enjoy the joys of the gospel and learn to overcome patterns that may contribute to depression. They then can gradually grow in His light “until the day dawn, and the day star arise in [their] hearts” (2 Pet. 1:19).
“My heart reaches out to our youth, who in many cases must walk a very lonely road. … I hope they can share their burden with you, their fathers and mothers. I hope that you will listen, that you will be patient and understanding, that you will draw them to you and comfort and sustain them in their loneliness. Pray for direction. Pray for patience. Pray for the strength to love. … Pray for understanding and kindness and, above all, for wisdom and inspiration.”
President Gordon B. Hinckley, “Great Shall Be the Peace of Thy Children,” Ensign, Nov. 2000, 51.
Depression in children and adolescents has been linked with increased risk of suicidal behavior. According to the World Health Organization, suicide is the third leading cause of death in adolescents worldwide, and about 100,000 adolescents take their lives each year. Parents and other adults who are attentive to warning signs can get youth the help they need when suicide is threatened or attempted. Important warning signs include:
Ongoing depression or anxiety.
Drug and alcohol abuse.
Conduct problems including impulsive or aggressive behavior.
Previous suicide attempts.
Talking or joking about hurting themselves or “not being around.”
Extreme moodiness or feelings of hopelessness.
Thoughts about dying.
Increased isolation or withdrawn behavior.
Significant sleep and eating changes.
Noticeable drop in grades or other activities.
Giving away possessions.
Death themes in writing, art, or music.
Increase in arguing or fighting with parents or peers.
Exposure to trauma such as child abuse, rape, or death of friends or family members.
Experiencing ongoing harassment or bullying.
Increased risk-taking with cars or weapons.
Getting into trouble repeatedly at school or with the law.
A specific suicide plan.
It is critical for parents and others to take warning signs and suicide threats seriously, to listen to youth and stay close to them, and to immediately refer the child or adolescent to an appropriate medical or mental health resource for assistance if necessary.
More on this topic: Shanna Ghaznavi, “Rising above the Blues,” New Era, Apr. 2002, 30; Jan Underwood Pinborough, “Keeping Mentally Well,” Ensign, Sept. 1990, 48. More information is also available at the Church’s Web site www.providentliving.org.