INTERVIEWEE - Dr. Hussain Maseeh
Sector Expert, Social Development & Care Sector

Positive Psychology can protect against depression in children

Children suffering from depression? Really? Have we as a society contributed in any way to increasing the stress, anxiety or mental health problems in young children today? The questions are disturbing, but we need to answer them and take mitigating steps. Shilpa Jasani in conversation with Dr. Hussain Maseeh, Sector Expert, Social Development & Care Sector, Community Development Authority – Dubai, about mental health problems in young children.


How real is this depression among children in the current times? As an expert, have you seen increase in mental health concerns among children? And what would you attribute that to – peer pressure, expectations from parents, teachers or society, increased burden from education, any other factors?



Depression in children is real. There is a diagnosis for it. Earlier it was masked depression, by which I mean that the changes in children were attributed to bad behaviour or irritability. Now there is more recognition that depression among children is as real at that in adults. When feelings of sadness persist for more than two weeks, or there are problems in sleep or appetite, feelings of hopelessness or helplessness, loss of interest or enjoyment – these are warning signs that the child has a mental health issue.


Professionals attribute these kind of problems to many factors– it could be genetic; family history or even chronic health issues could be a cause of depression. In psychology, there is no separation of psyche and physical levels – they affect each other and this is evident when we observe that physical distress can lead to emotional distress and vice versa. This is the biological aspect.


The other variable that could lead to depression could be the child’s lifestyle – family disintegration, physical or emotional abuse, substance abuse in the family, poverty, danger or lack of safety – are all factors that can create a fertile ground for depression. With the advent of social media, a lot of children suffer from a negative self image, or body image or lifestyle image; especially when they see perfect lifestyles of peers on social media platforms. A disturbing trend has emerged especially among girls – eating disorders. This is due to the overrated body image portrayed to these children, affecting their self-esteem. Sometimes, this depression could be the symptom of another mental health condition – bipolar disorder, where the patient fluctuates between a sense of sadness to bouts of happiness.   


How can parents/teachers identify that the child is depressed versus normal growing up anxiety? What according to you should parents/teachers be vigilant about to identify a potential problem before it magnifies out of proportion


If a child persistently exhibits abnormal behaviour for over two weeks, then this is the first sign that something is wrong. There are 5-6 measurable criteria like loss of appetite or sleep, persistent sadness or hopelessness which would help classify the health condition as depression. The psychologist would recommend medication and therapy.  


What can parents do at home or teachers do in school to ensure that they are not unwitting aids to leading children to depression?


Of course a supportive family or school environment is most conducive for a healthy all-round development. In some specific situations, like children from a family where the parents are depressed, makes such a child most susceptible to depression. The solution here is that children should take on age-appropriate roles. What happens in dysfunctional families is that children take on more responsibility – like becoming guardian of the mother, or the peacemaker or a referee. Taking on such roles is dysfunctional. The child should remain a child. As the child enters teenage years, there is an increased risk for this depression to turn into suicidal tendencies. Depression is the third highest cause of death in children because of suicides. The statistics show that boys are more successful in suicide attempts since they would use more violent methods. The problem with mental health issues is that the more you postpone treatment, the worse it gets.


Do diet, or lifestyle have any role in depression among children?


Yes, children need balance. A chaotic lifestyle is another factor that could increase risk of depression. By diet, I do not mean lack of certain food, but healthy food, regular sleep, social interaction, learning opportunities all contribute to balance in the child’s life. For example: if a child suffers from neglect, or goes to school hungry or does not wear clean clothes – his self image is affected. The more secure, structured or supportive a child’s environment, the more protected they are from mental health issues.


How real is the possibility that a child who has suffered from depression, will face another repeat later in life?


The unfortunate fact about depression is that it can have repeat episodes. However, with proper and early intervention, that risk is reduced. So if we put it into figures – a person who has suffered depression is twice as likely to have another episode as compared to a person who has never had depression. And once they get a second episode, they are four times as likely to get another relapse as compared to one who has never suffered depression.  


What role would spirituality or belief in God play for sound mental health?


It’s well established in positive psychology that strength and resilience in people are a way of coping with stress and pressures in life. So positive psychology advocates spirituality, and it is well-known that people who have stronger faith and spirituality, are more immune to psychiatric disorders. I would, however, like to separate religion and spirituality. A lot of religious people are not spiritually inclined, and vice versa. However, that does not mean that spiritual people are not affected by mental health issues, because some of these issues could be biological. But a spiritual person is better equipped to manage issues like stress, losses or pressures.

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