The State We’re In: Coping with Depression

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Charlie Olsen, Kid Governor, talks about childhood depression in this NHPBS presentation.

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The State We’re In – Coping with Depression

‘Tis the season for feeling happy and sad for so many. In this must-watch episode of The State We’re In from NH Public TV, we learn what people can do to help themselves and others to cope this holiday season. Plus, meet the Kid Governor who has a plan for addressing childhood depression.

Transcript – a Q&A with Dr. Sarah Roan, director of mood disorders and psychological services at Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center.

Coping with Depression

This content has been edited for length and clarity.

Winter can be a tough time in normal circumstances when it comes to mental health. This year, as we know, COVID is adding extra layers of fear, anxiety and loneliness. Joining The State We’re In host Melanie Plenda is Dr. Sarah Roan, director of mood disorders and psychological services at Dartmouth Hitchcock medical center to discuss what we can do to take care of ourselves and help the ones we love. Later, Melanie Plenda will discuss the plan NH’s Kid Governor has for addressing childhood depression.

Melanie Plenda: Can you start by talking to us about what people are going through right now, mentally and emotionally?

Dr. Sarah Roane: We’re in a time of year where a lot of people are affected by seasonal affective disorder, and seasonal affective disorder is a form of depression that is centered around fall and winter. Often people will experience depressive episodes in the fall and winter, and then they go into remission and the spring and summer. It’s related to the amount of daylight hours that we have here, which are really limited right now. Seasonal affective disorder is more common in places like New Hampshire; in fact, New Hampshire rates are thought to be around 9-10% whereas someplace like Florida might have 3% of the population. Every year we have seasonal affective disorder and people might have their coping strategies, but this year on top of seasonal affective disorder people are dealing with the pandemic. They’re at home more often, most of us are not seeing people as much. Many of the things that might sort of counterbalance the longer darkness are less available to us. We know there’s research happening already that tells us that during this pandemic, people are experiencing an increase in depression, an increase in anxiety, an increase in post-traumatic stress symptoms, and an increase in suicidal thoughts.

Melanie Plenda: What might that look like in kids too? How do they sort of react to that, or what might they be doing for parents at home?

Dr. Sarah Roane: They might be more anxious about separating from their parents, a lot of anxiety about sleeping, insomnia, real emotional mobility. The children might be happy one minute and then distraught the next, and just really reactive to things that might not have seemed like a big deal before. I’ve heard parents talking about children fighting more, but also children wanting to share a bed now when they haven’t shared a bed for years. I think there’s a lot of different things that you might notice, and it may not seem obvious that this is directly related to the pandemic, but certainly an increase in anxiety, sadness, fear, and difficulty being away from family.

Melanie Plenda: What do you say to parents whose children are reacting to this, but they also may be dealing with their own depression, their own loneliness, their own anxiety? It can probably be a little bit of a struggle to get out of their own way to help their kids and feel that way anyway. How do you help parents who might be feeling that way, or just adults who are experiencing this? What can they do to get to a place where they’re coping?

Dr. Sarah Roane: I would encourage parents to be patient with themselves and patient with their children, to make sure that they’re giving themselves some compassion, and realizing you’re probably not going to fix what’s going on with your child. If your child is getting really anxious when you separate and you think ‘I need to fix this problem,’ you’re going to feel bad and the child might feel bad. Instead, you can offer understanding and say ‘I know this is hard right now because everything has been different, and maybe you’re feeling uncomfortable when I do have to leave.’ This is how I’ve been able to talk to your child about it, but also make sure that you have things that you’re doing for yourself. The metaphor that we use sometimes comes from airplanes: they tell you to put your own mask on first. If you are really really struggling, it’s going to be much, much more difficult for you to help and support your family. I would encourage adults to find ways that they can care for themselves. There might be things that you normally do, you may have a book club that you always went to, or you might’ve played tennis with your friends. Now we’re having to find different solutions, but the more that you can take care of yourself, the more you will be able to be present and patient with your children.

Melanie Plenda: Earlier you mentioned an increase in suicidality; whether it’s a child or just someone you love, what are some warning signs that a situation is getting more serious, more out of the normal? 

Dr. Sarah Roane: First of all, we should never be afraid to talk about suicide. It’s a myth we have that somehow talking about suicide wil give someone that idea or make them want to end their life, and we know that that’s not true. A symptom of depression is sometimes having suicidal thoughts, and suicidal thoughts can range from having the feeling of ‘I wish I wouldn’t wake up in the morning’ to ‘I feel like I want to die, I don’t want to go on.’ All of that is a part of depression; it’s okay to have those feelings. I would encourage parents who are concerned about their children to say ‘tell me more about how you’re feeling, and do you ever feel like you wish things wouldn’t go on?’ It might be a way to ask that question to a child and prepare themselves. If you are worried about your spouse or a friend you can ask them ‘have you ever thought about ending your life?’ If they say yes, then you don’t need to panic; it’s not necessarily an immediate crisis, but there are resources. There’s the crisis text line, there’s a national suicide hotline. What I would encourage is if people notice that they’re depressed and really struggling, to try to reach out and find resources; you can go to your primary care and ask for referrals. If you’re employed, your employer might have an employee assistance program where you’re entitled to some sessions, and the hotlines I mentioned can also help you connect with resources. You’re not alone. There are people out there who can help. If a friend talks to you about those feelings, then you can help them get connected with those resources. If your child is having those feelings, you can reach out to the school, their pediatrician, get support, get a team together, get some help for all of you.

Melanie Plenda: New Hampshire has a new Kid Governor whose platform is focused on childhood depression. Joining me now is Charlie Olsen and his parents, Cheryl and Eric. Charlie is a fifth-grader from the Auburn village school in Auburn, New Hampshire. Charlie, you talk about how depression is an invisible problem. How will the CAS program help kids like you talk about the challenges of depression?

Charlie Olsen: During the quarantine, my parents realized how my depression was getting worse, so they said to have one of my friends come over and he was feeling depressed too. We got through it together, so I knew if it worked for me, it would work for a lot of other kids too.

Melanie Plenda: Can you talk about how you knew you were depressed?

Charlie Olsen: I would cry myself to sleep every night and I’d be stressing with the littlest things. I would have stomach aches, and eventually I went to the GI doctor to see what it was about. It turns out it was a mind/body thing. Sometimes it can even end up having physical pain.

Melanie Plenda: So mom and dad then, how did you respond and what did you do? What was it like for you guys to hear that?

Cheryl Olsen: I feel like it was surprising that this was his reaction to the quarantine, because personally, our lives didn’t change all that much other than the fact that the children weren’t going to school. We were able to take him to his primary doctor and the allergist and the GI doctor and all of these things and pursue them all to be sure that we weren’t missing something else. He actually asked us one night ‘is this what it feels like to be depressed’ and we think so, yes. We’ve ruled everything else out. We were able to get him a lot of support and he has a lot of support at home also. The reason that he’s wanting to share this is for those kids out there that don’t realize how they’re feeling physically is being impacted by what they’re feeling emotionally. They may not have all of that support and someone to turn to, they may have just one parent working from home and not access to that professional help also. 

Melanie Plenda: Do you have a message for other kids who want to get involved in their communities and who felt the way that you felt and during the quarantine?

Charlie Olsen: If you’re feeling sad or depressed, you don’t have to do it alone. You’re not alone and you can definitely help. You can go to NHkids.org and apply there if you want to help.

Eric Olsen: I would say too, that this New Hampshire Kid Governor program is amazing. It’s a part of the Institute of Politics at Saint A’s and the New Hampshire Institute of Civics Education. More towns and more States should get involved in this because it helps kids raise awareness about kids’ issues and actually take action on it.

Melanie Plenda: What are your plans for the future as Kid Governor?

Charlie Olsen: I’m going to make a social network where people can post positivity, cast a children’s run support team, and make fundraisers so kids can afford the mental health that they need, like golf tournaments and virtual triathlons.


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