Signs of children’s mental illnesses & what to do

Early detection, intervention and treatment can have a significant impact on the lives of children who experience mental health problems. However, too many children aren’t getting the proper mental health treatment they need.

Of all the children they see, primary care physicians identify about 19 percent with behavioral and emotional problems, according to the National Alliance on Mental Health. While these providers frequently refer children for mental health treatment, significant barriers exist to referral, including lack of available specialists, insurance restrictions, appointment delays and stigma. Fifty-nine percent of youth who are referred to specialty mental health care never make it to the specialist, according to NAMI.

Half of all chronic mental illnesses begin by the age of 14 and three-quarters by the age of 24. Despite effective treatment, there are long delays, sometimes decades, between the first appearance of symptoms and the point when people get help, according to NAMI.

However, if mental health issues are addressed and treated early, there are significant, positive impacts on children. Early detection and treatment can result in a substantially shorter and less disabling course of illness.

The non-treatment of mental health disorders can have devastating consequences, such as substance abuse disorders, homelessness, incarceration, episodes of violence, dropping out of school and suicide.

While we have a Youth Counseling Program, which brings mental health counseling to the local schools and juvenile probation offices to help ensure that those who are referred mental health counseling actually receive it, we know we can’t reach all the local kids who need mental health counseling.

It’s crucial that parents are educated on the possible signs of children’s mental illnesses, what to do and the importance of following through with the mental health treatment plan.

Possible signs of mental illness

  • A sudden or persistent drop in school performance
  • Persistently aggressive behavior
  • Threats to self or others
  • Substantial mood swings
  • Hallucinations, paranoia or delusions
  • Acting very withdrawn, sad or overly anxious
  • Extreme difficulty interacting with friends and/or siblings
  • Extreme changes in sleeping and eating patterns
  • Increased or persistent use of alcohol or drugs

Common mental health conditions in children and youth

  • Anxiety disorders (e.g., OCD, panic disorder, PTSD)
  • Mood disorders (e.g., depression, bipolar disorder)
  • Substance use disorders
  • Eating disorders
  • Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADD/ADHD)
  • Autism spectrum disorders
  • The onset of psychotic illnesses is not common overall but the teen and young adult years are periods of higher relative risk

What to do if you suspect your child has a mental health condition

  • Talk with your pediatrician. If you are concerned about your child’s mental health, start by talking with your pediatrician, share your concerns and ask for a comprehensive check-up. A comprehensive physical examination should be done to rule out other physical health conditions that may be causing a child’s symptoms, such as an endocrine problem, recurrent head injuries in sports or other conditions. If the pediatrician suspects that your child is experiencing early signs of a mental health condition, the pediatrician may either talk with you about treatment options or may recommend a referral to a mental health professional. In some cases the pediatrician may offer to provide some of the services his or herself.
  • Get a referral to a mental health specialist. If you are referred to a mental health professional, ask your pediatrician to help by calling the office for you to help get an appointment scheduled for your child. Many mental health professionals have long waiting lists and/or may not be taking new patients, so a call from your pediatrician can help get an immediate appointment for your child. It’s crucial to actually follow through with the appointment.
  • Work with the school. Meet with your child’s teacher or other school officials to request an evaluation for your child for special education services. Work with the school to identify effective interventions that promote positive behaviors, social skill development, academic achievement and prevent challenging behaviors in school. Ask your child’s treating mental health provider to identify interventions that can be used at school and at home to help you and your child cope with challenging behaviors and related issues.

For more ways to support children’s mental health, check out these tips.

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