May is Mental Health Month with the purpose of raising awareness and educating the public about mental illnesses, as well as, promoting ways for attaining mental health and wellness.

It isn’t easy talking about mental illness. Maybe you’re suffering alone. Or maybe you have a spouse/friend/sibling/parent/co-worker/child struggling with a mental illness.

It’s hard to know what to say or how to help. We hope to help change that by providing resources while helping to create more discussion around mental health. 

Today we want to discuss mental health and children.

The CDC has defined mental health in childhood as, “…reaching developmental and emotional milestones, and learning healthy social skills and how to cope when there are problems.”

Mental Health and Kids

When it comes to mental disorders and children, it’s defined as serious changes in how they:

  • Learn
  • Behave
  • Handle Emotions

These can all cause distress and problems in their life. It’s quite normal for children to have occasional issues, worries, and disruptive behavior. It’s when the symptoms persist (interfere with school, home, or play activities) for an extended period of time when the child might be diagnosed with a mental disorder.

The more common mental disorders affect how children learn, behave, or handle their emotions. 

Symptoms and Treatments For Childhood Mental Disorders

Is this just a stage? 

Symptoms of mental disorders change as the child grows but here are things to look out for:

  • Difficulties with how the child plays
  • Difficulties with how the child learns
  • Difficulties with how the child speaks
  • Difficulties with how the child acts or how they handle their emotions

Here are some more specific things to look out for (straight from the National Institute of Mental Health).

For Younger Children:

  • Frequent tantrums or are often intensely irritable 
  • Talks a lot about worries or fears
  • Cannot sit quietly or are in constant motion (except when they are watching videos or playing video games)
  • Sleep too much or too little, often have nightmares, or seem sleepy during the day
  • Have no interest in playing with other kids or difficulty making friends
  • Experience a decline in grades or struggle academically
  • Repeat actions or check things multiple times out of fear that something bad might happen

For Older Children:

  • Lost interest in things that they used to enjoy
  • Low energy
  • Sleep too much or too little, or seem sleepy during the day
  • Spend more and more time alone, avoid social activities
  • Fear of gaining weight, or diet or exercise excessively
  • Engage in self-harm behaviors (cutting or burning their skin)
  • Smoke, drink or use drugs
  • Engage in risky or destructive behavior alone or with others
  • Thoughts of suicide
  • Periods of highly elevated energy and activity and require much less sleep than usual
  • Thoughts that someone is trying to control their mind or that they hear things others can’t hear

Childhood mental disorders can be managed and treated. 

If you have concerns about your child, you should reach out to your family doctor to discuss your concerns. It’s also a good idea to talk with your child’s teacher and see how they behave at school, daycare, etc. 

While speaking with the doctor, it might be a good idea to ask for a referral to a mental health professional who has experience with mental illness and children.

Treatment options might include talk therapy, parent involvement in treatment, teaching skills/practicing skills at home or school, medications, and family counseling.

Why Is Mental Health Important?

Mental, behavioral, and developmental disorders begin in early childhood.

The following data was based on parent-reported diagnoses from a national survey:

1 in 6 children (2-8 years of age) has a mental, behavioral, or developmental disorder. 

Among children (2-8 years of age), boys were more likely than girls to have mental, behavioral, or developmental disorders. 

Age and poverty level affected the likelihood of children receiving treatment for anxiety, depression, or behavior problems. 

Mental illness is not something that disappears as we become adults, it’s a lifelong journey. Early diagnosis and action for children can make a big difference!

Mental health can affect physical health which affects the ability to succeed in school, at work, and in society. Both affect how we think, feel, and act internally and externally. 

An estimated 15 million children can currently be diagnosed with a mental health disorder with many more at risk of developing a disorder due to risk factors in their biology or genetics (within their families, schools, communities, and with their peers). It is estimated that only about 7% of these youth actually receive the help they need.

As parents, it’s up to us to help our children thrive. Don’t be afraid or ashamed to seek help for your child, or yourself! Talk with your children and seek help if needed. 

Stop the stigma. Let’s talk about mental health.

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