If your child walks away from a car accident uninjured, you of course consider yourself lucky. But just as the physical effects of a car accident can be long lasting, so too can the mental ones. It's natural for a child to take a while to seem back to normal after such an event, but depression after a car accident is a possibility for some, and being aware of the efforts you can take to help prevent it -- or get your child the help she needs -- can give you comfort that you're doing all you can.
Car Accidents Are Traumatic for Kids
Some research has shown that a car accidents can be especially traumatic for children. Approximately 15% to 25% of children involved in car accidents develop symptoms of depression even months after the accident.
A study published in The Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Mental Health in February 2010 found that preadolescent children who received a single psychological intervention 7 to 10 days after a car accident developed less depressive symptoms and behavioral problems at 2- and 6-month follow-ups than to those who did not receive the intervention. The intervention, which included one parent, involved reconstructing the accident using drawings and toys, and education about the psychological effects of a traumatic event.
The authors of this study concluded that an early intervention is useful in protecting preadolescent children against developing depression and behavior problems as a result of a car accident. However, it was not effective for adolescents, who may require more frequent interventions.
Given these findings, it is important to get help for your child after a traumatic event, like a car accident, and not wait until your child shows signs of depression.
Some Kids More at Risk
According to Dr. Avshalom Caspi and colleagues, who published a study in Science in July 2003, some children are more prone to depression as a result of stressful life events. Additionally, children with past episodes of depression are at a higher risk for developing depression again. For these children, it may be especially important to seek early treatment after an accident or other traumatic event.
After a physician has ruled out any physical injuries in your child, don't be afraid to ask that an on-duty psychologist, psychiatrist or social worker speak with your child. If circumstances prevent an immediate consultation, make an appointment to come back and see someone in the next week. If your child already sees a mental health professional, consult with that person to let them know about the accident.
Remember that your child has just gone through a traumatic event and will likely require more attention and reassurance from you for a while. Your child may be scared to get in a car again or be alone. Be sure to talk to your child about what happened and don't minimize her fears. However, if you notice that her symptoms worsen, change, or last longer than a few weeks, consult with a physician or mental health profession.
Depression Symptoms to Keep an Eye Out For
Symptoms of depression in children may include:
- Feeling misunderstood
- Avoiding social activities; withdrawal from friends and family
- Loss of interest in things of former interest
- Academic decline
- Problems sleeping
- Appetite and weight changes
- Unexplained physical complaints
- Excessive crying
If you notice any symptoms of depression or other unexplained behaviors in your child, bring them to the attention of a physician or mental health professional. Depression in children should be diagnosed and treated early for the best chance at recovery.
Avshalom Caspi, Karen Sugden, Terrie E. Moffitt, Alan Taylor, Ian W. Craig, HonaLee Harrington, Joseph McClay, Jonathan Mill, Judy Martin, Anthony Braithwaite, Richie Poulton. "Influence of Life Stress on Depression: Moderation by a Polymorphism in the 5-HTT Gene." Science July 18, 2003 301: 386-389.
Daniel Zehnder, Martin Meuli, Markus A Landolt. "Effectiveness of a Single-Session EarlyPsychological Intervention For Children After Road Traffic Accidents: A Randomised Controlled Trial." Journal of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry and Mental Health, February 10, 2010. 4(7)
What are the Signs and Symptoms of Depression? National Institute on Mental Health. Accessed: May 30, 2010. http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/depression/what-are-the-signs-and-symptoms-of-depression.shtml