It’s not uncommon for children to experience a touch of the ‘winter blues’ – a slump in mood that occurs during the winter months.
This article on children’s mental health covers the following:
Children can develop the same mental health problems as adults, but their symptoms may be different. Know what signs to watch for and how you can help improve their wellbeing.
Depression is a mood disorder which makes a young person feel down all the time.
It can be triggered by one significant or difficult event, such as bullying, family difficulties, bereavement or abuse. It can also be more common in those with a family history of depression or other mental health problems.
It is one of the most common mental health disorders and it can affect children and young people as well as adults.
Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) is depression that happens at a specific time of year, usually in winter.
As it gets dark earlier and the days get shorter, SAD is the brain’s response to the seasonal changes in daylight. Less sunlight in winter affects the chemicals in the brain that impact mood and energy levels.
Our bodies create vitamin D from sunlight on our skin. It is vital to the production of serotonin and to keep our bones strong and healthy.
In the UK, we are usually able to produce most of the vitamin D we need from spending time outdoors, something which is easier to do when the weather is better and sunlight hours are more prevalent, between March and September.
However, in the winter months, people tend to cover their skin with layers and spend less time outdoors, thus limiting their intake of vitamin D. Children at school will spend less time playing outdoors in winter.
This has been said to affect children’s moods. Individuals with low vitamin D are at a higher risk of developing SAD.
Melatonin is often referred to as the ‘sleep hormone’ and is produced by the pineal gland in the brain.
Melatonin is central to the body’s sleep-wake cycle, with melatonin production increased with evening darkness in order to encourage healthy sleep and to anchor our circadian rhythm.
In winter when the days are shorter, more melatonin is produced, resulting in us feeling more sleepy and lethargic.
Those who suffer from SAD generally experience an overproduction of melatonin in the winter months. While melatonin does not cause SAD it can add to feelings of sluggishness and low mood.
These changes to the body’s circadian rhythm mean that people who suffer from winter depression struggle to cope with seasonal light-dark changes.
Women are nearly twice as likely as men to be diagnosed with depression.
This is echoed in childhood, with a study suggesting that girls are at a higher risk of depression because of their higher use of social media.
This disparity between the sexes has also been attributed to the hormonal changes that take place within the female body, relating to puberty in childhood as well as, pregnancy (and thus postpartum depression), perimenopause and menopause in adult life.
Where children live could have an overbearing factor on the state of their mental health.
Geographically, those who live far north or south of the equator, with decreased sunlight during winter and longer days in summer, are more susceptible to SAD.
Also, city-living has been suggested to cause anxiety and stress with the constant stimulation being responsible for eroding mental health.
Children with a history of depression are more likely to develop mental health disorders.
Similarly, genetics play a role in how likely a child is to get depression or anxiety. If a child has a family history of depression, they are more likely to develop symptoms themselves. However this isn’t guaranteed and a child can still suffer with mental health conditions even if they have no family history.
Exercise in children comes with a mountain of benefits.
There are physical health benefits such as improving fitness, building a stronger heart and bones, healthier muscles and improving posture and balance. There are also mental health benefits such as improved concentration, improved self-esteem, lowered stress and an opportunity to socialise with peers, which in turn can improve communication, leadership and teamwork skills.
Moderate-intensity exercise has proven to be beneficial for depression and can result in a happier mood.
Many studies have examined the effectiveness of exercise in its capacity to reduce the symptom of depression, and even a simple, brisk walk, can clear the mind and boost mood.
Exercise doesn’t have to mean team-sports or sports in schools. It can be a recreational game of football with a friend in the garden or a simple game of frisbee in the park.
Alternatively, if the child is worried about leaving the house, try an indoor obstacle course, star jumps, running up and down the stairs or a game of catch to keep the child’s mind and body active.
There’s no doubt that enhancing vitamin D production over the winter months is beneficial to one’s mood.
Take advantage of a sunny day by arranging outdoor activities which will help to boost vitamin D levels.
Here are some ideas for parents to get the children outdoors:
Spend time outdoors responsibly. If the weather warrants it, wear sunscreen (SPF 50+) and make sure children wear sun hats and appropriate clothing.
Light therapy is founded on the idea that the shortened daylight hours in winter are responsible for triggering or causing SAD. Light therapy combats this by exposing individuals struggling with seasonal depression to artificial lights for set periods. A SAD lamp is a form of light therapy treatment.
It doesn’t work for everyone, but some people find it is an effective and simple way to keep their mood buoyant throughout winter.
A physical stimulus or a particular smell can trigger a depressive thought or episode in a child. To counter this, put together a box of high-sensory activities. The activities should have positive connotations for the child and will stimulate happy thoughts or keep their mind occupied on a set task.
Think about the child’s favourite tastes, textures or sounds to help influence what gets included in the box. Here are some examples of items to add:
Nutrition is crucial to our wellbeing and plays a big role in affecting our mood.
A healthy, balanced diet containing fresh, whole foods that are high in nutrients will encourage healthy development, strong bones, help prevent mental disorders and enable children to maintain a healthy weight.
Refined convenience foods such as fried food, sweets, fizzy drinks and junk food have been linked to low moods, so avoid or reduce these as much as possible.
Some vitamins and minerals have been claimed to have a positive effect on mood and, in some cases, can reduce symptoms of mental health problems.
Omega-3 is believed to benefit people with mental health problems. It has anti-inflammatory properties and interacts with mood-related molecules in the brain.
It can be found in oily fish such as salmon, sardines, tuna and mackerel, as well as chia seeds, flaxseed oil and walnuts. A diet containing a balance of these foods could help to improve mood. Similarly, there is evidence to suggest that young children and adolescents with depression may benefit from omega- supplementation.
As well as exposure to sunlight, diet is another way to keep vitamin D levels topped up within the body.
Foods such as eggs, oily fish and fortified dairy products are good sources of vitamin D which will help to boost serotonin production and keep bones healthy.
Zinc helps to boost the immune system and has been linked to reducing symptoms of depression.
Consider adding more foods rich in zinc to the diet, including whole grains, beans, nuts and pumpkins seeds, and beef, chicken and pork.
There is evidence to show that antioxidants lower the risk for depression.
Antioxidants can be found in foods such as berries, fresh fruit and vegetables and folate-rich beans, so try incorporating more into your child’s diet.
Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) is a type of talking therapy which is used to treat anxiety and depression.
CBT focuses on changing thought patterns to influence mood and behaviour. It is a way to ‘retrain the brain’ and reduce the negative associations a person might attach to a particular stimulus or trigger.
It is one of the most popular and effective forms of psychotherapy for a number of mental health conditions. Speak to your GP as a first step for more information.
If you think your child is anxious or suffering from a mental health problem, it’s important to talk to them and offer support.
Try to find out what’s troubling them and how they’re feeling. Whatever is causing the problem, take it seriously. It could be a major concern for your child and it’s important that they feel heard and supported.
There are a number of mental health organisations and other services that provide confidential advice and mental health support if you are concerned: