More than two million US teenagers have suffered a serious bout of depression in the past year, including nearly 13 percent of girls, according to a federal government survey. And although SA doesn't have the statistics to compare, experts warn that the figures are worryingly similar.
Dr Frans Korb (psychiatrist and board member of the South African Anxiety and Depression Group), said, "South Africa has no definite statistics on the prevalence of depression and suicide amongst teenagers, but it is definitely a problem and estimates put the figures on a par with Western world findings."
The US survey showed that on average, 8.5 percent of adolescents aged 12 to 17 described having had a major depressive episode in the previous year, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reported.
Gender plays role in depression
But there were 'striking differences' by sex, with 12.7 percent of girls and 4.6 percent of boys affected.
In South Africa, however, Korb claimed that while the ratio of girls versus boys who commit suicide is a relatively similar proportion, depression amongst girls is almost twice as common.
Depression is the leading cause of suicide, which in turn is the third-leading cause of death for 15 to 24-year-olds in the United States.
"Combined 2004 to 2006 data show that rates of past year major depressive episodes among youths aged 12 to 17 generally increased with increasing age," the researchers wrote.
Korb said this was also the case in SA. "There are peaks during adolescence in depression and suicide rates. These peaks also occur in the late 20s - 30s, for women during menopause and again at retirement age," he said.
How the US study was done
Researchers at SAMHSA and RTI International in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, prepared the report using data from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health.
More than 67 700 youths aged 12 to 17 answered questions about mood and depression. They were also asked to rate how depression affected them using the Sheehan Disability Scale, which measures impact on family, friends, chores at home, work and school.
They defined a major depressive episode as two weeks or longer of depressed mood or loss of interest or pleasure, and at least four other symptoms such as problems with sleep, energy, concentration or self-image.
Depression affects ability to function
Nearly half of the teenagers who had major depression said it severely impaired their ability to function in at least one of the areas on the disability scale.
The worst cases were unable to carry out normal activities for an average of 58 days in the past year.
What parents can do to help
"Fortunately, depression responds very well to early intervention and treatment," SAMHSA Administrator Terry Cline said. He added, "Parents concerned about their child's mental health should seek help with the same urgency as with any other medical condition. Appropriate mental health care can help their child recover and thrive."
Korb agreed with this and added that it was imperative parents and their children learn to "communicate effectively so the child knows that when he approaches his parents with a problem he will be taken seriously, and can trust they will listen and recognise when their child is in distress and seek help."
"I believe true communication is vital if this problem is going to be addressed correctly," he said.
(Reuters Health, Dr Frans Korb, psychiatrist and board member of Sadag, May 2008)
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