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Dealing with Depression - Children & Adolescents

By Sally-Anne McCormack

Part One (Child & Adolescent)

As many of us know, the amount of people suffering from mental illness is extremely large, and many report that it is rapidly increasing!

It is widely suggested that around one in 5 people are suffering from depression at any given time (1 in 4 women, and 1 in 6 men). Recent statistics indicate that around 800,000 Australians suffer from depression every year – how will these numbers look in 2010? Or 2020? And what about children and adolescents? Research suggests around 5% of children, and nearly 1 in 10 adolescents are also inflicted with depression.

So, a question that needs to be asked is – what can we do to prevent it? Before becoming a psychologist, I started off my working life as a teacher. I spent a number of years studying, then entered the classroom with enthusiasm and a desire to inspire others to learn. After having a small bunch of children, I decided it was the right time to change my career path and become a psychologist. However, the passion of teaching has not deserted me, and has in fact enabled me to view mental illness from a different perspective. While I enjoy helping people deal with the depression and anxiety that they are currently suffering from, it seems incredibly logical to me that it would make much more sense to get into our schools and teach children and adolescents the skills that they need to learn to think in a more positive manner, and to become more aware of their feelings. This “no-brainer” idea should lead to a reduction in the above statistics! The Victorian Government has taken steps to move in this direction by introducing the new curriculum (Victorian Essential Learning Standards) into schools, and there are other initiatives being created to be used in schools, which is fantastic! But it is difficult for these programs to be effective if the staff at the coal-face are stressed and feeling overwhelmed by the amount of work they have to cover in 40 weeks per year. For some, there is a sense of having additional pressures and extra curriculum to be included in already overloaded days. There is still a way to go, but we have some incredibly positive signs …

So what can parents & teachers do to help these children and teens now? There are some easy and practical things that we can do to help prevent depression, or assist them to find a way out of the “fog”.

Tip One . Go for a walk! A family hike would be ideal, but at least 20 minutes of walking every day will increase the serotonin levels in their brains (which is the chemical that is depleted when someone is suffering from this mental illness). In a school, taking the class out for a run around the oval (or ideally, a school which runs some sort of exercise program before school for everyone would find physical and mental health improvements in all of their students!) can help lighten the mood for the day and everyone is more likely to learn efficiently than if they did not do any exercise.

Most of the time we do not really notice what happens to our body until after the event. How many of us have said “I didn’t realise how angry I was at the time”. If you can start noticing these physiological warnings about your feelings, then you can start teaching your child/teen how to recognise their own. This is extremely important, because without this recognition, we cannot change our thinking patterns which are what cause depression in the first place!

Tip Three . Once you and your child have learned to notice your feelings, the next step is to help them to identify what thoughts are going on in their heads. Most of the time, when we ask someone (either child, teen or adult) what they were thinking when they were feeling angry, they say “Nothing”.

Regardless of whether this is true or not (and I do not believe that it is!), the fact is that if they can control their thoughts, they will essentially control their feelings. For example, if my best friend just asked my boyfriend out, it is difficult to be angry if I am saying to myself, “Well, at least she has found someone caring to talk to” or “He is wonderful the way he helps people solve their problems”. It is only if I say, “She should not have rung him behind my back”, or “He should not have agreed to go” that I would be feeling infuriated with either of them.

Tip Four . Notice your own language. Do you say to the children (or to yourself) phrases such as “That was really stupid” or “What an idiot” or “I’m never any good at that”? Each of these phrases – even said in jest – are negative and model poor thinking habits. In my practice I tell people that “mud sticks” and even if you think it is funny referring to yourself as a “weirdo”, you end up believing it, and so do those around you! It is extremely important that you change YOUR language so you can model more appropriate ways to speak about yourself. This does NOT mean that you have to say something that is not true. An example for me would be not saying that I am a dreadful cook. It is better for me to say something less negative such as “I do not enjoy cooking” or “Cooking is not a strength of mine, but I can set the table beautifully!” But for me to start saying “I am a great cook” is not only a lie, but an unhelpful statement because everyone in my family knows that it is inaccurate, and if I really chose to believe what I said, then every evening I would “fail” and it would simply reinforce negative thinking patterns. I would much rather one of my children to say (and think) “I did not do well in my maths test yesterday” than to say “I am useless at maths”, so it is vital that I model this behaviour too!

The bottom line is for us as parents, teachers or guardians of children and teens to be mindful of what we are demonstrating to those in our care. The risk of depression is considerably high, and it is important for us to help reduce these statistics in the future by doing some work on ourselves today.

If you or a loved one is currently suffering from depression, I would recommend you seek advice firstly from your doctor, and then contact a psychologist for individual advice or strategies to help with your child, teen or yourself. The Australian Government introduced an initiative for people with mental illness (such as depression or anxiety) to qualify for a Mental Health Care Plan from your doctor which enables a partial rebate for sessions with various allied health professionals. Check first if you meet this criterion. However, you do NOT need a doctor’s referral to see a psychologist.

Sally-Anne McCormack is a Melbourne psychologist, former teacher, and a mother of 4. She is currently writing books on depression and parenting gifted children, and has 2 fabulous websites: and which offer advice, resources and email newsletters. Sally-Anne is registered as a media spokesperson for the Australian Psychological Society (A.P.S.) and is a committee member of ADAVIC. She has practices in Blackburn and Burwood East and can be contacted via email ( or by telephone

(03) 881 22 373 .


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