Story helps children understand depression

Originally published in The Ottawa Citizen May 14, 2002
Original Title: Child of Vision

Alex is eight years old. His father, who quit his job from the police department, is depressed. Alex is uncertain what he should do. His father does attend his soccer games and pays little attention to him. Alex wants to quit soccer because he thinks he is no good.

So begins a storybook called “Can I Catch it Like a Cold? A story to help children understand a parent’s depression” newly published by the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH). The storybook shows how Alex copes with his father’s depression, his mother’s frustration and his own feelings of responsibility and failure.

The storybook is written for children between five and nine years of age but is a valuable resource for parents, extended family, teachers, and health professionals. It provides a good foundation for the kind of vocabulary that works best in communicating complex ideas to children. The illustrations are bright and colourful complementing the story well.

This is the first of a series of storybooks for children from CAMH. CAMH is a teaching hospital fully affiliated with the University of Toronto and is a World Health Organization Centre of Excellence.

Children have many questions about their parents’ depression. CAMH’s research indicated that there are inadequate resources to help children understand the impact of depression. A study in the April issue of the Archives of General Psychiatry found that children of at least one parent with major depression are at greater risk for severe depression, substance abuse and anxiety disorders compared with children of non-depressed parents. Further, the child’s depression tends to be more severe than their parent’s.

Depression can impair a child’s normal social development. The adolescent stages leading to independence, educational pursuits and interpersonal relationships may be forestalled. The study’s authors state, “Specifically, the early detection of mental health problems in offspring of depressed parents seems to be crucial, as this would allow the treatment of early manifestation of mental problems before they cause clinical impairment.”

The study concludes, “ Major depression in parents increases the overall risk in offspring for onset of depressive and other mental disorders and influences patterns of the natural course of depression in the early stages of manifestation.”

In the story, Alex befriends a 12 year-old girl who helps him understand that he is not responsible for his dad’s depression. She encourages him to persevere in soccer noting that he really is quite good at it. He does and eventually scores a goal. The book does not end in Disney-esque fashion. It stays true to the realities of depressive illness.

CAMH compiled a list of questions children frequently want to ask. Many do not have the opportunity to ask them nor do they get satisfactory answers at times. The list does not seem restricted to the queries of children:

  • What is depression?
  • How does depression work?
  • Why does my dad act the way he does?
  • How does it feel to be depressed?
  • What goes on in my mom’s head when she’s not herself?
  • What causes depression? How does it start?
  • Will the depression ever be fixed?
  • How can my mom or dad get better?
  • Is there anything I can do to make my mom or dad better?
  • Will it happen to me? Will I get it too?
  • Is there anything I can do so that I don’t get depression?
  • Can parents give it to other people? Is it like a cold? Can you catch depression?
  • Depression is an illness that many continue to find difficult to accept. Despite the stigma, it is imperative that, as a society, it be recognized as is diabetes, heart disease or any other “visible” illness. There are some children in my practice who indeed suffer as the study has elucidated. They feel helpless. They cannot control their parents’ marital conflicts and arguments. Some have told me that they wished their parents divorced to calm the household.

The storybook answers many of these questions. It is slated for release in time for mental Health Awareness Week (May 5th – 12th). It will be made available as of May 6th at local bookstores. It can be ordered direct from CAMH at 1-800-661-1111. Further information is available at their web site

© Dr. Barry Dworkin 2002

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