Children as young as 3 years’ old should be regularly screened for depression, researchers looking into the re-occurrence of the condition have said.
The study of 246 children aged 3-5 by Washington University in St. Louis found that those who are depressed in nursery are two and a half times more likely to continue to experience symptoms right up to university and beyond.
However, study lead Dr Joan Luby believes that if child health professionals can spot symptoms of depression early on, it will make treatment more effective.
“It's the same old bad news about depression; it is a chronic and recurrent disorder,” the director of Washington's Early Emotional Development Programme said. “But the good news is that if we can identify depression early, perhaps we have a window of opportunity to treat it more effectively,” Luby said. This could “potentially change the trajectory of the illness so that it is less likely to be chronic and recurring,” she added.
As part of the study, children and their parents/guardians participated in 6 yearly assessments as well as 4 bi-annual assessments on their sadness, irritability, guilt, sleep and appetite, as well as reduced enjoyment in activities or playtime.
At the beginning of the study, 74 of the children were diagnosed with depression. Six years later, 79 of the children met the criteria for clinical depression, including about half of the 74 children diagnosed with depression when the study began.
By contrast, just 24% of the 172 children who were not identified as having symptoms of depression during the study went on to develop mental health issues later on. Among the children at higher risk for depression were school-age youngsters whose mothers had suffered from depression.
Being diagnosed with a conduct disorder while in nursery school also boosted a child's risk for depression in other school levels. This risk was reduced however, if children had a lot of support from their mother, the researchers noted.
“Preschool depression predicted school-age depression over and above any of the other well-established risk factors,” Luby said. “Those children appear to be on a trajectory for depression that's independent of other psychosocial variables.”
“The reason it hasn't yet become a huge call to action is because we don't yet have any proven, effective treatments for depressed preschoolers,” Luby explained. “Paediatricians don't usually want to screen for a condition if they can't then refer patients to someone who can help.”