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Pediatricians: We need to do more to recognize childhood depression

Mental health has once again become an important part of the national conversation on school gun violence.

Mental health advocates argue that ensuring proper mental health care for young people should be priority No. 1 for lawmakers, parents, and school officials–even over other measures, such as gun control.

Recent research, however, suggests that mental illness may play less of a role than we might think in youth violence.

Let’s put the gun debate aside for a second. It’s vital that responsible adults understand the social, emotional, or psychological issues children are experiencing–and how to help them tackle those challenges.

But, youth depression often goes undiagnosed, according to new guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). To prevent long-lasting damage in adulthood or tragedy during childhood, AAP calls for universal screenings for childhood depression.

As America’s doctors and lawmakers look for new ways to recognize and treat children with mental illness, the nation’s K-12 schools have an important role to play.

Screening and prevention

According to Allison Aubrey in Mind/Shift, two out of three teens suffering from depression don’t receive the treatment they need.

The AAP guidelines call for yearly screenings for depression starting at 12 years old–whether through a regular check-up, a school sports physical, or other doctor’s visit.

AAP reports that a leading cause of death in young people ages 10-17 is suicide. By properly diagnosing depression in the early stages, doctors hope they can reverse this trend.

Fighting the stigma

One barrier to the diagnosis and treatment of depression is stigma, says child psychiatrist Dr. Doug Newton. As Newton tells Mind/Shift, “Stigma is a huge challenge, specifically for adolescents. Often they’re not coming in because of the stigma attached.”

Teens are also less likely to be upfront about the issues they are facing when talking in-person with a doctor, according to AAP. That’s why the new guidelines call for the use of self-reported questionnaires that teens can fill out on their own.

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“Teenagers are often more honest when they’re not looking somebody in the face who’s asking questions,” Dr. Rachel Zuckerbrot, one of the authors, tells Mind/Shift.

For their part, schools can help chip away at the stigma of mental illness by addressing the issue head-on through curricula, counselling, and community conversations.

Looking for the signs

While pediatricians work to tackle the problem of depression early-on, schools can help identify and help students who may be in the throes of mental illness by encouraging students and teachers to monitor and report students who may in trouble.

Privacy and anonymity are important. Schools should provide students who don’t want to be perceived as breaking the confidence of their friends with the ability to discreetly report concerns.

Temecula Valley Unified School District in California is a great study of how systems for discreet reporting can actually help save lives.

When a student saw a Facebook post in which a classmate was contemplating suicide, she reported it to administrators using the district’s online Report Bullying tool, essentially a button and form on the district website. Within minutes, district staff launched into health and security protocol, notifying the student’s parents and preventing a potential tragedy.

As school districts continue to address student mental health to prevent self-harm as well as mass shootings, systems like the ones used in Temecula and elsewhere may help protect their most vulnerable students.

How does your school or district work to detect signs of depression in your students? Do you have systems in place to support student mental health? Tell us in the comments.