Foster Care: Ways to Identify and Address Depression

If you’re a foster parent, you’re likely aware of the trauma children in foster care face. Being separated from their family disrupts their sense of security, and they may have experienced distressing conditions in their original or previous home. According to a study published in Pediatrics, the stress foster children go through early on puts them at higher risk of mental and physical health problems. Children who have been in foster care are seven times more likely to develop depression.(1)  

This doesn’t mean foster children are guaranteed to struggle with depression, but it’s an important health concern to be aware of as a foster parent. Depression affects their long-term well-being, and extreme depression can lead to suicide. It can be hard to gauge whether a child is simply expressing angst about their situation or struggling with mental health challenges. We recommend, as best as you can, paying close attention to their behaviors and educating yourself on the warning signs for depression and available resources. 

Warning Signs

It’s natural for a child to feel sad from time to time. But there are some expressions, behaviors, and changes in patterns that are signals for depression and suicide. Communicate regularly with the other people in their life, like day care staff, teachers, or , to get a full picture of how they’re behaving in different environments. If you observe any of the following symptoms of depression or suicide, take them seriously and address them right away.

Depression

  • Feeling sad, hopeless or irritable most of the time 
  • No longer interested in activities they used to enjoy 
  • Difficulty paying attention 
  • Feeling helpless or hopeless about problems they could resolve 
  • Changes in eating or sleeping patterns 
  • Decreased levels of energy 
  • Spending more time alone 
  • Feeling worthless or guilty
  • Self-injury and self-destructive behavior 
  • Making trouble or acting unmotivated 

Suicide

  • Feeling trapped or in unbearable pain
  • Suggesting they’re a burden to others  
  • Increased use of alcohol or drugs 
  • Behaving recklessly 
  • Saying they have no reason to live 
  • Talking about wanting to die or kill themselves 
  • Feeling empty, hopeless or having no reason to live 
  • Planning or looking for a way to kill themselves, possibly by doing research online 

Steps to Take

If a foster child is exhibiting the warning signs listed above, it’s important to err on the side of caution and seek help. Talk to your child’s primary care provider about conducting a mental health assessment. The child may benefit from behavioral therapy or trauma-informed therapy, which helps children understand and process emotions associated with traumatic events. The YMCA of Greater Seattle has a team of professional on call for Crisis Support. For more information, please call 206 382 5340 or email counseling@seattleymca.org.

If you suspect a foster child is contemplating suicide, take immediate action. Keep them safe and away from items they may use to harm themselves, especially if you’ve learned of any specific plans they’ve made. You can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).