How Does Dysthymia Differ From Major Depression?
Children who experience significant and protracted trauma and/or stress during childhood are at increased risk of developing a condition known as dysthymia, which is sometimes described as a less severe/dramatic version of major depression.
Because its symptoms tend not to be as obvious as those of major depression (for example, a young person suffering from it may exhibit the symptom of frequent irritability but parents may dismiss this as ‘typical teenage touchiness’) this does NOT mean that it is necessarily less dangerous.
Whilst dysthymia is uncommon in very young children, some studies suggest that it can occur in children as young as five years old.
In the title of this article I have described dysthymia as ‘persistent low mood’. To elaborate upon this definition, adjectives such as ‘gloomy’, ‘pessimistic’ and ‘down’ can be used to describe the dysthymic young person. Furthermore, children suffering from dysthymia are very frequently preoccupied with feelings of being ‘left out‘ by or unaccepted/disliked/unloved by others. On top of this, such individuals also tend to feel ‘inferior‘ to others and that they don’t ‘measure up’ to their peers in various definable – and more nebulous, indefinable – ways. (As I finish writing this paragraph, I realize it is an accurate description of how I felt about myself as a young person).
A Study Into How The Symptoms Of Dysthymia Differ From Symptoms Of Major Depression In Children :
A study conducted by Kovacs et al., (1994) examined how symptoms of dysthymia in children differed from symptoms of major depression in children. The major findings of the study were as follows :
Those children suffering from dysthymia, compared to those suffering from major depression, were, on average :
- less likely to suffer from disturbed sleep (22% versus 62%)
- less likely to suffer from appetite disturbance (6% versus 47%)
- less likely to suffer from severe loss of ability to feel pleasure – this is a condition that is clinically known as ‘anhedonia‘ (6% versus 71%)
- about equally likely to suffer from depressed/sad mood (91% versus 80%)
- about equally likely to feel unloved (55% versus 48%)
- about equally likely to feel friendless (41% versus 40%)
Which Factors Increase An Individual’s Risk Of Developing Dysthymia?
Risk factors that increase a young person’s chances of developing the condition of dysthymia include the following :
- significant trauma / stress
- having a first-degree relative (mother, father, sibling) who suffers from a depressive disorder
- having a history of other psychiatric conditions
What Problems Are Associated With Dysthymia?
I said at the beginning of this article that dysthymia can be just as dangerous as major-depression. This is because it can lead to myriad problems for the young person such as :
- impaired academic performance
- relationship problems (including relationship with parents and peers)
- abuse of alcohol / narcotics
- suicidal thoughts
- increased risk of major depression
- increased risk of anxiety disorders
- increased risk of developing a personality disorder
In the same study (Kovacs et al.) referred to above, more than two-thirds of the total number (fifty-five) of young people suffering from dysthymia went on to develop more severe symptoms of depression or full-blown major depression (in both cases without a complete absence of symptoms in between). In the group of young people who went on to develop major depression, the time at which they were most likely to do so was 2-3 years after the initial onset of dysthymic disorder.
It has, therefore, been theorized that ‘dysthymic disorder’ may, in fact, not be a separate and distinct mood disorder in its own right, but, rather, a subtype, or precursor, other mood disorders.
Treatment Of Dysthymia:
If a young person is suffering from dysthymia, early identification of the disorder and early therapeutic intervention is vital to help reduce the risk that the condition deteriorates or that the young person develops even more serious psychiatric conditions. Also, the level of stress that the young person is exposed to should be reduced as far as possible. Furthermore, the young person should be given as much social support as necessary.
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David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).