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Five years ago Michelle Obama launched the “Let’s Move” campaign, dedicated to changing the culture of food and exercise for children across the United States, with the hope of reducing national rates of childhood obesity.

While much of the focus has been on the physical health of the 37% of children in the nation who are overweight and the 17% (or 12.7 million) of youth aged 2 to 19 who are obese, the potential impact of youth mental health has largely been overlooked.

In 2014 the Department of Health and Human Services released a report showing that 43% of depressed adults were also obese, a startling fact that grew to 55 percent of patients who were taking antidepressants. Obesity and depression are often compartmentalized as separate health problems, but they actually share common symptoms such as sleep issues, sedentary behavior and dysregulated food intake, and often go hand in hand.

In a Teenage Anxiety and Depression Solutions (TADS) study of over 400 adolescents with major depressive disorder, change in sleep was the most prevalent residual depression symptom. For children aged 7 to 17, insomnia was associated with suicidal thoughts and plan-making for those with major depressive disorder. Sleep problems are also connected to obesity as well. Children who are overweight face an increased risk for several different sleep issues (sleep apnea and hypoventilation syndrome) connected with decreased nighttime sleep. In a study conducted with 383 11 to 16 year olds, overweight youths experienced less total sleep time than non-obese youth.

Another prevalent feature of depression is decreased interest and motivation for activity. It’s possible that sedentary behavior can contribute or directly impact worsening depression and obesity. Depression and childhood obesity also share similarities with changes in appetite as well. A prevalent symptom of Atypical Depression is hyperphagia, an abnormally increased appetite for consumption of food.

Recently, Jay Pharoah, a stand-up comedian known for his impersonations on SNL went public discussing his childhood and how being overweight affected his mental health–talking specifically about his depression. Now triathlete James Lawrence, the Iron Cowboy, has set a world record by completing 50 Ironman triathlon courses in each of the 50 states in 50 consecutive days. Behind his determination and hard work is a man who hopes to empower others to tackle childhood obesity before it begins. The father of five children has partnered with the Jamie Oliver Foundation to raise awareness about this important issue. He participates in these difficult races not to push himself, but rather to assess his own personal limits. Screening for Mental Health’s Executive Director, Candice Porter, had the privilege of meeting with Lawrence and his family and even ran alongside him in a 5K portion of New Hampshire race.

Prominent athletes and figures standing up and discussing the importance of this mental and physical health issue, the national campaign spearheaded by first lady, Michelle Obama, and the increase in data and awareness on the correlation between these two critical issues have all had an impact on the 43% drop in obesity rates for young children aged 2 to 4 years old.

Bryner, J. (2010, February 14). Childhood Obesity Takes Psychological Toll, Too. Retrieved August 12, 2015.
Buxton, R. (2015, August 11). Jay Pharoah Opens Up About His Painful Battle With Depression. Retrieved August 12, 2015.
Donaldson, A. (2015, July 26). Lindon father of five sets world record in hopes of raising money, awareness about childhood obesity. Retrieved August 12, 2015.
Liptak, K. (2015, April 6). Let’s Move reaches 5 after criticism — progress – Retrieved August 12, 2015.
Obesity and Depression Often Twin Ills, Study Finds. (n.d.). Retrieved August 12, 2015.
Reeves, G., Postolache, T., & Snitker, S. (n.d.). Childhood Obesity and Depression: Connection between these Growing Problems in Growing Children. Retrieved August 12, 2015.