A child’s mental health is as important as its physical health. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines mental health in childhood as “reaching developmental and emotional milestones, and learning healthy social skills and how to cope when there are problems. Mentally healthy children have a positive quality of life and can function well at home, in school, and in their communities.” But, about 20% of American children suffer from a diagnosable mental illness during a given year. Further, nearly 5 million American children and adolescents suffer from a serious mental illness (one that significantly interferes with their day-to-day life). However, only about 7 percent of these children receive appropriate help from mental health professionals.
Nurturing a Child’s Mental Health (Canadian Paediatric Society, 2017) (Mental Health Foundation, n.d.)
You can contribute to a child’s positive mental health by:
- Building strong, caring relationships: Make them have a sense of belonging in their family, school, and community. A significant person—often a parent or other family member—should be consistently present in a child’s life to help him/her develop resilience. This person is someone your child spends a lot of time with and knows he can turn to when he needs help. Eat dinners together. Show your children how to solve problems that arise. Ensure their school looks after their well-being by periodically visiting the school and interacting with the pupils and teachers.
- Helping the child develop self-esteem: Show lots of love and acceptance and make the child feel loved, trusted, understood, valued and safe. Recognize their efforts and achievements. You should appreciate what they are good at. Take interest in their activities and interests.
- Listening to and respecting their feelings: It’s OK for children to feel sad or angry. Encourage them to talk about how they feel. Keep communication and conversation flowing by asking questions and listening to your kids. Help your child find someone to talk to if she doesn’t feel comfortable talking to you.
- Creating a safe, positive home environment: Be aware of your child’s media use, both the content and the amount of time spent, and be aware of who they might be interacting with in chat rooms and online games. Do not discuss serious family issues—such as finances, marital problems, or illness—around your children. Make them eat a balanced diet. Provide time for physical activity and play—both indoors and outdoors. Make them feel they have some control over their own life.
- Helping children solve problems: Teach your children how to relax when they feel upset. This could be deep breathing, doing something calming (such as a quiet activity they enjoy), spending some time alone, or going for a walk. Talk about possible solutions or ideas to improve a situation and how to make it happen.
Child Mental Health Problems (WebMD, 2018) (Mayo Clinic Staff, 2018)
Mental disorders affect how we think, feel and act on the inside and outside. Mental disorders in children affect the way they typically learn, behave, or handle their emotions, which cause distress and problems in day-to-day life. For instance, an overweight young boy who is teased about his weight may withdraw socially and become depressed and may be reluctant to play with others or exercise.
Children can suffer from the following mental illnesses:
- Anxiety disorders: In these disorders, children respond to certain things or situations with fear and dread, including physical signs of nervousness, such as a rapid heartbeat and sweating. These anxiety disorders—such as obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, social phobia, and generalized anxiety disorder—interfere with their daily activities. Some worry is normal, but when worry or stress makes it hard for a child to function normally, an anxiety disorder should be considered.
- Disruptive behavior disorders: These children defy rules and often are disruptive at school.
- Eating Disorders: These disorders—such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge-eating disorder—can be even life-threatening conditions. They become so preoccupied with food and weight that they focus on little else.
- Mood disorders: These disorders, including depression and bipolar disorder, can cause persistent feelings of sadness or extreme mood swings in a child.
- Schizophrenia: This is a serious disorder that distorts a child’s perceptions and thoughts, leading to the child losing touch with reality (psychosis). Schizophrenia most often appears in the late teens through the 20s.
- Tic disorders: These disorders cause a person to perform repeated, sudden, involuntary and often meaningless movements and sounds, called tics.
- Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD): They are hyperactive and have trouble controlling their impulses and paying attention. ADHD is the most commonly diagnosed mental disorder in children.
Symptoms of Mental Health Problem in a Child (Canadian Paediatric Society, 2017) (Mayo Clinic Staff, 2018)
All children are different. If your child has a mental disorder, there will be changes in how he or she is thinking, feeling or acting. He/she may also be showing some physical changes. Also, the child may be doing less well at home, at school, and with friends. If some of the following symptoms are present in your child, then it makes the presence of a mental disorder more likely:
- Changes in thinking: Talking negatively about himself, or blaming himself for things that are not in his control; trouble concentrating; deteriorating school performance.
- Changes in feelings: Reactions or feelings far in excess of the situation; feelings of sadness or withdrawal that last at least two weeks or severe mood swings that cause problems in relationships at home or school; feeling helpless, hopeless, lonely, or rejected.
- Changes in behavior: Preferring to be alone more often; given to crying easily; showing less interest in activities that were once enjoyable, such as sports and games; over-reacting with anger or tears over trivial incidents; unable to get along with friends. Fighting frequently, using weapons and expressing a desire to badly hurt others are warning signs.
- Physical changes: Unexplained headaches, tummy aches, or general aches and pains; feeling tired all the time; sleeping or eating problems; nervous habits such as nail-biting, hair twisting or thumb-sucking.
- Substance abuse: Some kids use drugs or alcohol to try to cope with their feelings.
- Physical harm: Sometimes the child may carry out the act of deliberately harming one’s own body, such as cutting or burning oneself. They may also develop suicidal thoughts or attempt suicide.
However, note that the presence of one or more of the above symptoms does not automatically mean your child has a mental health disorder. The child will need to be seen by a mental health professional to determine that.
Treatment of Mental Health Problem in a Child (WebMD, 2018)
The treatment options used for children are the same as what are used to treat adults. The most common ones include:
- Medications:They include anti-anxiety drugs, antidepressants, mood stabilizers, antipsychotics, and stimulants. Medication can be combined with psychotherapy.
- Psychotherapy:Psychotherapy helps people deal with their illness by talking through strategies for understanding and dealing with their symptoms, thoughts, and behaviors. They include supportive, cognitive-behavioral, interpersonal, group, and family therapy.
- Creative therapies:Therapies like art therapy or play therapy may be helpful if a child is having trouble communicating their thoughts and feelings.
With timely and appropriate treatment, many children recover fully or are able to successfully control their symptoms. Some become disabled adults if the disorder is severe or chronic. Many mentally ill people are nevertheless able to live full and productive lives. However, without treatment, many mental disorders can continue into adulthood and lead to problems in all areas of that person’s life (WebMD, 2018).
Canadian Paediatric Society, 2017. Your child’s mental health. [Online]
Available at: https://www.caringforkids.cps.ca/handouts/mental_health
[Accessed 23 Oct 2019].
Mayo Clinic Staff, 2018. Mental illness in children: Know the signs. [Online]
Available at: https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/childrens-health/in-depth/mental-illness-in-children/art-20046577
[Accessed 23 Oct 2019].
Mental Health Foundation, n.d. Children and young people. [Online]
Available at: https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/a-to-z/c/children-and-young-people
[Accessed 23 Oct 2019].
WebMD, 2018. Mental Illness in Children. [Online]
Available at: https://www.webmd.com/anxiety-panic/mental-health-illness-in-children#1
[Accessed 23 Oct 2019].