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Childhood mental health - the impact of increased exposure to depression and suicide

Childhood mental health - the impact of increased
Photo: Childhood mental health - the impact of increased exposure to depression and sui....
Rapidly advancing digital technology, the internet, and social media have changed our collective lives.

Much of it has been for the better; convenience, connectivity to friends and family, immediate access to information.

But there are downsides too, especially when it comes to children. Young children and adolescents are widely exposed to content that would have been vastly unfamiliar for generations before them at the same age.

Mental health, including depression and suicide, are among that content, and has both positive and negative implications, says psychotherapist, Dr Karen Phillip.

“Kids hear about mental health issues most days in news programs, it is discussed as commonly as eating breakfast cereal,” she says.

“People, parents, the media, and sports stars speak openly and often regarding mental health issues, anxiety and depression. It has become an almost expected part of everyday life for so many. What was once never openly discussed is now spoken about openly.”
Dr Phillip says exposure can be beneficial, but only if it comes with positive displays, such as proactive motion toward recovery.

“Kids will often link depression to suicide. It is on their social platforms, discussed on social media all the time. Often it is said as a throw away comment yet other times it is said with a plan in mind.”

Depression versus sadness

Another potential issue for children is their inability to differentiate between clinical depression and sadness.

“Unfortunately, sadness is described as depression when in fact they are vastly different,” says Dr Phillip. 

“It is almost like we are not permitted to feel sad anymore, yet this is part of our emotional development and progression.

“When we do feel sadness, which we can, we need to explain to our kids that it is ok to feel this way sometimes.

“Talk about the reason we feel this way, work on strategies to feel differently or take steps to adjust what is going on in your world, all very positive steps to self-empowerment and change.”

Of course, it can be hard for parents to tell the difference too.  Dr Phillip says generally sadness is felt for a while, whereas depression remains dormant and deep for many weeks at a time, it’s relentless.

“Depression often means no happiness or laughter, no engagement with others or activities, no future planning ability.

“If your child is displaying these symptoms, speak to them as to the reason they may seem sad or down.

“Ask them about any future activities or perhaps suggest if they may like to go to the beach, skating, on holiday and wait for their response.

“We want to see excitement and smiles. If the child remains in a dark place, obtain professional help.

“Kids often tell me they don’t talk to their parents for fear of saying something wrong and being told they are feeling wrong, they fear upsetting or distressing their parents, they are petrified of disappointing their parents – that’s a big one.”

High exposure

With such high exposure to big concepts, it’s little wonder children have questions.  Dr Phillip says it’s important for parents to remain open to conversation and be ready to answer any questions their children may have. Having a book on hand is a good option.

“A story on survival, support and resilience is exactly what we need to educate our child with.

“Any negative feelings that may appear, and they may, can be overcome with learning new techniques and strategies without catastrophising the emotion.

“Children need to learn this can occur to anyone but normally it passes with time and techniques learned.”

Times have changed

The unique combination of increased exposure, along with significant changes in the way children live their lives, has resulted in an increase in childhood mental illness.

“We are not sure if it is getting worse or simply becoming more open to discuss. There is also the issue of is ‘what is regarded as a mental health illness.

“Anger, frustration, temporary sadness, overwhelm, dissatisfaction; these are not actually mental health issues, but can be part of growing, learning, change and just life.

“It is how we deal with these revolving feelings, what we can learn from them, and how to get through or past them that counts; this isn’t necessarily a mental illness.

“From I don’t get what I want, when I want, how I want to abuse, trauma, divorce, conflict at home, bullying, the list goes on when it comes to causes of sadness and anger.

“For teens, it is now becoming an issue of survival on earth with problems of global warming and environmental change, career opportunities, money availability to buy a future home.

“Parents are the best gauge of how their child is hoping; they usually know when their child needs additional support.”

In the digital world in which we live, there’s a lot to process, for both children and adults alike.

“Our current life is very new for everyone,” says Dr Phillip.

“Humans haven’t been through this social media connection, newsfeeds in our face every minute, connections and video every minute, then throw in covid and isolation.”

Dr Phillip says while children are adapting as well as they can, they often look to their parents for guidance.

“How are parents coping, what are they saying, what are they doing, are they creating a fun place with an end in sight?

“All this reflects on how the child feels and manages.

“It is a tough time right now for everyone with many struggling.

“There is also a light for everyone regardless of what they are going through.

“The one thing to always ask is – is what I am doing, saying or thinking helping me or serving me well or is it hurting me?

“If not, then a change must occur and if we need professional counselling, that will help make the change faster and easier. We all have options and choices. We just need to make a change.”

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Nicole Madigan

Nicole Madigan is a widely published journalist with more than 15 years experience in the media and communications industries.

Specialising in health, business, property and finance, Nicole writes regularly for numerous high-profile newspapers, magazines and online publications.

Before moving into freelance writing almost a decade ago, Nicole was an on-air reporter with Channel Nine and a newspaper journalist with News Limited.

Nicole is also the Director of content and communications agency Stella Communications (www.stellacomms.com) and a children's author.