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What It's Like to Be Diagnosed With Depression at Eight Years Old

"In year 4, getting up each day was a battle for me and my parents. I began finding it difficult to walk. I started getting excruciating headaches."

by Kieron Passaway; illustrated by Owain Anderson
Apr 24 2019, 1:03pm

Author as a child; collage by Owain Anderson.

Looking back, the depression makes sense. As a child, while others would play, I'd isolate myself. I wasn't the mischievous boy dads treasured, nor the Milkybar kid mums adored. I was, as a child, largely singular, hard to understand and frustratingly despondent. Clearly an anomaly when I started school, I was naturally bullied by the other kids.

At eight – the beginning of year 4 – it got to the point where getting up each day was a battle for me and my parents. I began finding it difficult to walk. I started getting excruciating headaches and regularly visiting medical services, where they would speculate as to what may be wrong with me. Depression was never discussed, despite all the Sad Boy behaviour, most likely because I was too young. With my situation only worsening, my parents amplified their concern, repeatedly taking me back. I was eventually believed to have a brain tumour. I had a CAT scan and the results came back negative (obviously).

The depression consumed even the smallest pockets of joy I had inside me. I just wanted to be in my room, with the lights off and the curtains drawn, away from school and away from my family. I understood my room and I understood Dragon Ball Z and I understood darkness, too. That’s where I felt normal – not at school, where I was so regularly made to feel alien – so that’s where I wanted to be.

While the evidence is abundant, as a child you don’t properly realise your own hapless turmoil. You’re not introspective. At that age and in that innocence, you just feel, without reflection, or understanding, or words.

In Britain, 12.8 percent of children and young people (aged five to 16) are clinically diagnosed with a mental health disorder, with 8.1 percent of those cases being emotional disorders (depression and anxiety). But when you consider that 25 percent of Britain’s population have been diagnosed with a mental health-related issue – more if you consider those left undiagnosed – and that three in four mental health issues arise in childhood, it's fair to say the number likely runs worryingly higher.

According to the World Health Organisation, suicide is the third biggest cause of adolescent deaths. So the fact there may be undiagnosed sufferers is a distinctly troublesome thought, especially bearing in mind that depression is widely considered to worsen when left unaddressed, potentially resulting in co-morbid mental disorders.

While we have a wealth of literature regarding depression in adults, institutionally produced and self-produced, there is seemingly a dearth of dedicated literature relating to children. Google "depression in children" and you'll get plenty of results, but the majority feel like tips for adults, just with the ages changed.

For example, WHO advise that if a child becomes irritable and socially distant, that’s a sign of depression. But here, a counter: that’s also a sign of being young.

This sentiment is shared by child psychologist Stefan Lüttke, who, when speaking to VICE, claimed WHO’s criteria "is not intended for children and teenagers, but for adults". He says "children most regularly go within themselves and actively try to avoid school", just as I did, and that "if someone gives up their favourite activities and routines for at least two weeks, you should take a closer look at [why]".

There are a growing number of psychologists and charities (MIND, Rethink Mental Illness) who are spreading similar information, which is good – but it's still a lot to ask of a parent to be as discerning as a medical professional. Especially so when they might lean towards the easy answer: that their child is fine; that it's all down to developmental issues.

My mum tells me she and my dad agreed in early October of year 4 that they would let me stay off school until the new year, when I was to return and attempt a new start at being a real eight-year-old who played tag and stuff. I always took things very literally, so when it came to midnight on New Year’s Eve, I ran. Away from the party poppers and champagne, out of the house and down the street, as far as I could to feel safe.

This was when my parents realised something darker was going on. In the new year, they took me to the medical services, and it was then that I was medically diagnosed with depression, placed on Prozac, assigned a child psychologist and dropped in occupational therapy.

Charlotte, 23, who had depression as a child, felt the same need to hide. "I just wanted to disappear… Life seemed so much worse than good," she told me over Twitter direct message. She says that although she has suffered since the age of seven, she wasn’t actually diagnosed until 15, with her issues being put down to typical "prepubescent behaviour".

It was a similar situation for Molly, who also told me over Twitter DM, that her mental health had similarly been disregarded as "prepubescent behaviour" and that she would "grow out of it" as she matured. Considering the fermentation of mental health disorders and suicide among adolescents, the fact she was given that advice is worrying.

While an adult's feelings are as varied and complex as a child’s – perhaps even more so – the majority know what actions act as a flare; the number of a local therapist; who of their friends to speak to. A child doesn’t have these tools; diagnosis and treatment must come from elsewhere.

It was in a room with a child psychologist where my mum says I opened up and became a little more "normal", for lack of a better word. I had never spoken about how I felt before. The psychologist suggested that I needed to speak independently, not when asked guiding questions. It needed to be on my terms, as adults will often project their own ideas of sadness upon children and constrict their consciousness.

This involved a simple system: I would face my toy Simba towards my mother when I wanted to speak. She’d wait for hours, perching on the edge of my bed, in darkness, hoping for me to face Simba her way. I eventually did – 3AM was often the time I wanted to talk, she says. Incoherent ramblings about who I loved and why I loved them, what I wanted to do in life, who I missed and who I feared. I’d often talk until I fell asleep. Although it was a breakthrough, these times were hard for my mum. They regularly resulted in her waiting until I pontificated myself asleep, when she’d return to her room and cry herself until she had to work, consuming the whole of her evening and, in a way, her life. In her mind I was as fragile as ever. A child with no armour, she says.

My dad says he found difficulty in the fact that depression isn’t visible: it wasn’t a broken leg or arm, a black eye or a cough. There was no timeline. Everything was internal and, for him, there was no end, so he often felt hopeless and angry. My mum had suffered from depression, which he had no sympathy for, regularly undermining the condition entirely. But after I was diagnosed, he realised the encompassing and monolithic power of such a disease, as he saw it consume a young and impartial mind firsthand.

Although he’d hope for me to simply leave my room, he also lived in constant fear of how I’d handle the world outside. He knew that the thoughts he had about depression were common. He knew the teachers and other children wouldn’t understand this internalised deficiency that made me bruise so easily. He knew this – and that, to a degree, broke him. Eventually, when I returned to school, my sister was made to look after me every break and lunch. Both of my sisters still look after me with a similar level of care now, I guess.

The support network that my family offered enabled me now to consider my depression an integral part of who I am now. A distinctly sombre feeling of uniqueness I’ve grown to love. I am lucky to have such a healthy relationship with it.

Molly says she feels a similar sense of friendliness with her depression now, although she says she still suffers. "I almost feel weirdly lucky that I've had to experience it for so long," she tells me. "I have a lot of friends who didn't until their teens, and I felt I could be a supportive friend who wouldn't judge them in the same way I had been as a kid."

Charlotte didn’t receive any such sympathies. Her depression grew into something larger because of lack of awareness and neglect; she was often called a “drama queen” and "lazy". She hasn’t been able to recover from her depression and still suffers now, and has even attempted suicide multiple times, she tells me.

Twenty years ago, a child with depression was inconceivable. Ten years ago it was considerable. Now, we seem to be moving towards realising that, in many young minds, it is a given, and something we should prepare to handle. Although, in this political climate, with low funding for health services – the head of the NSPCC says even when children are referred there is a “slim chance they’ll receive treatment” – as awareness grows, more cases will need to attended to, which means services will be even more stretched, which means more children will be left to their own irrational, dark, uneducated devices. It's clearly still a step in the right direction, though, and perhaps in the future we can hope for more funding.

When I speak of my family it may seem like I’m showboating my own cosmic serendipity, that I was blessed with such considerate blood. Although I'm thankful for them each and every day, what I really want to illustrate is the power that listening and caring can have. I’m healthy now. I could have been much, much worse. But I wasn’t. Because my family became aware of how to handle me, which is the biggest battle.

@HiMyNameIsKier

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

Tagged:
depression
therapy
mental healthcare
childhood depression
child mental health