Kathleen Tracy | HealthGreatness

Childhood isn’t for the faint of heart. Kids can be a tough crowd, honing in on the vulnerabilities of their peers with the precision of bat sonar. So it’s hardly a surprise that a recent study found that many children battling chronic obesity suffer from depression and related self-esteem issues or that overweight and obese children and teens have a higher rate of depression than their non-obese counterparts. Overweight children as a whole are also more apt to display hostile, angry behavior towards authority.

Two young girls bullying other young girl outdoors

While both the medical community and popular media tend to focus on the psychological effects being overweight has on young girls, it is actually overweight boys who typically suffer from obesity-related depressions. Adding insult to injury, weight gain is a common side effect of many prescribed antidepressant medications.

But researchers are divided on whether being obese causes the depression, or if depression is what drives obesity. Typically, symptoms of depression include increased appetite, lethargy, and weight gain. But being overweight can make children the butt of classmates’ jokes or  make them outcasts, which can lead to depression.

Chicken, meet egg.

What is known for sure is that obesity isn’t just a medical problem, it is a looming mental health epidemic. Jeffrey Schwimmer of the University of California, San Diego, reports, “Obese children reported scores [on a quality of life survey] that were as bad as cancer patients in each and every domain of life. We were surprised it was that bad. The potential ramifications are huge.”

Unfortunately, there is no one-size fits all treatment for obese children suffering depression, which may have a number of causes, such as:

Heredity. Depression and obesity can each have a strong hereditary component. So children whose parents suffer from one or both conditions are more likely born predisposed to develop one or both.

Body chemistry. Some doctors believe that depressed kids don’t produce enough neurotransmitters such as serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine, which play a big part in regulating emotions.

Emotional trauma. Life-altering events account for as many as half of all depressive episodes. These include death of a parent or loved one, divorcing parents, moving to a new home/school, and abuse.

Hormones. Depression is often diagnosed around puberty.

Some experts suggest that both obesity and depression share a similar brain chemistry so whatever the cause and effect, the two conditions may naturally go hand-in-hand, which also means successful treatment would logically target those shared underlying mechanisms. In other words, to treat one condition, you need to treat both.

It may seem counter intuitive but mental health professionals stress that the focus with children should never be on dieting but on getting healthy. Children need proper nutrition to fuel their ongoing physical, mental, and hormonal development. Dieting connotes deprivation and that doesn’t work with children. The best thing parents can do is to approach obesity as a health issue and downplay the appearance aspect, which can prompt feelings of worthlessness and exacerbate their depression.

Dr, Elizabeth Goodman of Brandeis University stresses parents need to realize that obesity isn’t necessarily caused by overeating. “There are different types of depression and different types of obesity. It’s easy to say that it’s all behavioral. That makes it sound like there’s a choice; I’m not sure that it is.”

What experts can agree on is that early intervention is important so if your child is having weight issues or you suspect your child is depressed, seek help sooner rather than later.

Typical signs of depression in children include:

  • Unusual sadness and/or irritability
  • Lack of interest on activities they once enjoyed
  • Trouble getting to sleep or sleeping too much
  • Increased antisocial behavior
  • Difficulty concentrating and remembering
  • A change in appetite and/or weight
  • Slipping grades in school


About The Author

Kathleen Tracy, a journalist and the author of more than eighty books, has written extensively on science, medical, and technology related subjects from stem cell research and behavioral drugs to smart energy and ecology. Find her on Google+