Shining a Light on Kids' Depression

By Charlotte Hussey

John Abela crosses cultural and geographic borders to explore depression in children

John Abela, with Chou Chou, his team’s mascot
John Abela, with Chou Chou, his team’s mascot

Winston Churchill called it the “black dog.” Ernest Hemingway wryly nicknamed it “the artist’s reward.” Marlon Brando, Vincent Van Gogh and Dolly Parton all grappled with the demon called depression.

And now, research by Professor John Abela shows that children as young as six can be affected by the illness that has plagued the great and not-so-great throughout history.

Abela, Associate Professor of Psychology at McGill and Director of the Cognitive Behaviour Therapy Clinic at the Montreal Children’s Hospital, says the realization that children can become clinically depressed is a recent development – within the last 20 years. But most studies of childhood depression focused on teenagers on the assumption that younger children don’t have the cognitive capability and big-picture perspective to draw the negative conclusions that fuel depression.

Now Abela’s research indicates that even the sandbox set can become depressed. He has found that small children, indeed, have already developed the cognitive factors that can lead to depression.

Abela devised a sophisticated study of kids in Philadelphia and Montreal elementary schools. His team of 32 students conducted between eight and 16 follow-up assessments, unlike the traditional format of only one initial assessment and one follow-up.

The children were asked to describe the thoughts they would have if certain negative things happened to them. “What if you got a bad grade on a school test, or you’re not invited to a classmate’s birthday party? Kids can respond to that,” Abela says.

The six- and seven-year-olds were given hand-held PCs on which they touch-toned responses onto their screens. The children loved it, and this computerized mood-monitoring study proved conclusively that young children can think themselves into a state of depression.

Abela has added a truly international dimension to his studies by looking at the effect of culture on depression, a variable rarely considered. He is conducting a study of approximately 1,000 adolescents in Montreal and Shanghai.

Depression among children, he has found, respects no geographic boundaries.

“In the past 15 years, China has gone through the same amount of change that Europe or North America went through in 70 years during the Industrial Revolution,” he says. Marital infidelity and divorce are skyrocketing, urbanization is ripping apart traditional family compounds – and depression rates in China now equal our own.

Having discovered that Western kids hold no monopoly on the “black dog,” Abela wants to probe more deeply into the cultural impact on depression. Specifically, Abela wants to know whether the spread of cultural values such as materialism can explain the rise of depression, first in the West and now in China.

In short, as Chinese kids embrace Western values, must they also accept the higher rates of depression that seem to go along with them?

Materialism, with its fixation on financial success, physical appearance and social recognition, seems to produce higher levels of depressive symptoms. “Materialists have a fragile sense of self because their worth depends on attaining external things. The quality of their interpersonal relationships suffers and they feel more stress while pursuing extrinsic goals,” Abela says. As the mindset in China becomes more materialistic, depression rates are rising.

And the psychologist isn’t just trying to understand childhood depression better; he’s also focusing on prevention. Abela, along with his doctoral student Chad McWhinnie and several undergraduate students, has organized a depression prevention day camp for some 80 Montreal sixth graders, to ease their transition into high school.

Funded by the Positive Psychology Centre at the University of Pennsylvania, this new initiative “will promote the development of character strengths and values,” says Abela.

Its aim, as with all of his work, is to foster the psychological well-being of our children.

John Abela’s research on depression has received funding from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, the National Alliance for Research on Schizophrenia and Depression, the Canadian Psychiatric Research Foundation, le Fonds québécois de la recherche sur la nature et les technologies and the Canada Foundation for Innovation.