Depression can be ‘detected in kids as young as seven’ – know the warning signs

DEPRESSION may start in the brains of kids as young as seven – and the warning signs could predict future problems, experts have claimed.

Scientists in the US studied almost 100 children and found they could predict which would suffer depressive symptoms at the age of 11 by scanning their brains.

 Experts say mental health problems can be detected in children as young as seven


Experts say mental health problems can be detected in children as young as sevenCredit: Getty – Contributor

The 94 children were scanned in an MRI scan when they were seven, according to the study published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry.

Experts from Northeastern University in Boston said the results appeared to show their brains had lower blood flow between the parts that control decision-making and mood.

Four years later, the same group of youngsters had a behavioural assessment where they appeared to show more signs of depression.

The researchers carried out interviews with the children’s parents to determine this.

They separately graded the youngsters on “internalising” behaviours, such as withdrawing from friends and family, signs of anxiety and physical symptoms including extreme tiredness.

Almost one in five children were found to have seen depressive symptoms worsen over the four years.

Figures show that around 113,000 children in England have problems with their mental health by the time they start school.

The Sun launched the You’re Not Alone campaign last year to raise awareness of mental health issues and encourage people to seek help.

Detecting mental health problems in children can be challenging as individual children experience different signs.

For many, symptoms such as anxiety and lack of enjoyment don’t start until their teen years.

But there are some early warning signs – here, the experts share nine you can look out for…

1. Bad mood that won’t go away

A child suffering mental health problems will begin to feel persistently down.

Emily Cherry, head of policy at Barnados UK, told The Sun Online that they might be becoming really withdrawn from friends and family and isolating themselves.

“So if you have events coming up like birthdays they might start to become really fearful and don’t want to engage,” she said.

“They will be persistently low and unhappy – nothing will lift their mood.”

2. Tearful or emotional outbursts

Another key sign to look out for is anger and emotional outbursts.

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These will be much bigger than the usual outburst a child might have when they are defying their parents.

“That kind of anger or outburst will stop them doing normal, everyday tasks,” Emily added.

3. Lack of interest in fun things they used to love

Another sign is that they might lose interest in activities they used to enjoy.

For instance, if your child had a hobby and they have suddenly stopped doing it and don’t want to replace it with another activity.

4. Feeling tired all the time

If your child seems unable to relax or is more lethargic than usual, this could be a clue that something isn’t quite right.

According to the NHS, being irritable or grumpy all the time may also be a tell-tale sign.

5. Eating less or binge eating

Any sudden change in your child’s eating habits might signal a mental health problem.

Some might even have physical symptoms, such as headaches and stomach aches, the NHS said.

6. Trouble sleeping 

Another really important sign to look for is if your child is having problems sleeping.

“Children who are persistently low, who are suffering from depression or anxiety, will find sleeping really difficult,” said Cherry.

It might also be that they don’t want to get out of bed, or sleep in for hours longer than usual.

7. Lack of concentration

If teachers at your child’s school have noticed that they are finding it hard to concentrate in class, this could be a red flag, also.

Not being able to make their mind up, or seeming like they don’t care about certain outcomes are signs that should not be taken lightly, either.


Things that increase the risk of a mental illness such as anxiety or depression in children include:

  • family difficulties
  • bullying
  • physical, emotional or sexual abuse
  • a family history of depression or other mental health problems
  • Sometimes it is triggered by one difficult event, such as parents separating, a bereavement or problems with school or other children.
  • Often it’s caused by a mixture of things. For example, your child may have inherited a tendency to depression and also have experienced some difficult life events.
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8. Low self-esteem

If your kid talks about feeling guilty or worthless, it might be a sign that they’ve lost their confidence, which could be linked to a mental illness.

The NHS describes it this as feeling “empty or unable to feel emotions” or “numb”.

9. Having suicidal thoughts

Perhaps more of a direct clue, but if things get really bad, you might notice your child begins self-harming or cutting their skin.

“If a child is getting to crisis point, where they are feeling so low and angry, they may turn to self-harm and even have suicidal thoughts,” explained Cherry.

You might not see the evidence of such action right away, but you might notice your child is covering up more or trying to hide their skin, which might be a sign of self-harming.

While there are some key warning signs to look out for, they can vary from child to child.

However, Cherry said parents know their children and should be able to spot them easily.

“Parents are the experts in their own children,” she said.


CREATING a safe and welcoming environment is an important part of addressing your child’s mental health problems.

  • set aside uninterrupted time with your child
  • create a safe place for them to talk
  • let them know that you are always there for them
  • let them know that they can talk about anything they are feeling
  • if they don’t want to talk straight away don’t push them
  • use gentle language like “I’ve noticed you have been sad lately, I am always here if you want to talk”
  • do not make it an inquisition by asking lots of questions like “why are you sad?” and “what is going on?”
  • encourage them to speak to a friend or teacher if they don’t feel comfortable talking to you

“Feeling down or anxious is often really normal for children and it can be quite worrying for parents to see that.

“But there is often a real tipping point for parents when that anxiety, that feeling low and feeling sad starts to take over your child’s life and that’s when you need to be seeking help.”

Every 90 minutes, someone kills themselves in the UK – with suicide being the biggest killer of people under the age of 35.

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Both of those are really alarming statistics, which is why The Sun has launched the You’re Not Alone campaign, in a bid to get more people talking about mental health.

Some studies show that almost one in four young people will experience depression before they are 19 years old.

Alana Ryan, Senior Policy Officer at the NSPCC, said: “When a generation of children is struggling with their mental health with many having self-harmed or attempted suicide, we are fundamentally failing our young people.

“Our own research shows even if children are referred for specialist mental health treatment there is a slim chance they will receive it, which is totally unacceptable.”

It’s important to get help early if you think your child may have a mental disorder or is depressed.

The longer it goes on, the more likely it is to disrupt your child’s life and turn into a long-term problem.


If you, or anyone you know, needs help dealing with mental health problems, the following organisations provide support:

Duchess of Cambridge has encouraged children to be comfortable in their own skin as part of Children’s Mental Health Week


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