Did you know that May is National Mental Health Awareness Month and that May 9th is National Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day? Did you also know that according to the National Research Council and Institute of Medicine, one out of every five children experience some form of mental disorder annually?
Starting in 1949, the Mental Health America organization has dedicated the month of May to raise awareness about mental health. Mental Health Awareness month aims to provide public education about mental health issues and their effect on suicide, as well as how to live with mental health conditions and how to obtain mind and body wellness.
During the month of May, other mental health organizations have started to coordinate awareness campaigns. One such organization is the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, which has started the National Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day. This day takes place on May 9th and is intended to draw attention to the importance of taking care of children’s mental health in the same way one would care for their physical health.
What is Children’s Mental Health?
Young girl off center wearing a striped shirt and black glasses
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines childhood mental health as “reaching developmental and emotional milestones, and learning healthy social skills and how to cope when there are problems.” In other words, children that are mentally healthy can properly function well at home, school, or within their social spheres.
Possible mental health issues can be present when a child’s ability to function well and thrive is affected. In children, it is often their ability to learn, express emotions, or behave appropriately that cause distress and interrupt daily functions. These three impairments to daily functioning are the primary way that children’s mental health disorders are defined.
Some examples of possible children’s mental health disorders can include:
- Conduct Disorder (CD)
- Eating Disorders (Anorexia & Bulimia)
- Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
- Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD)
- Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
- Tourette Syndrome
Additionally, some childhood disorders may increase the risk of mental health problems in children. Childhood disorders that are often seen occurring with mental health disorders include Autism Spectrum Disorder, developmental disabilities, language disorders, learning disorders, underage drinking, and substance abuse.
There may also be a genetic predisposition for children to develop a mental illness if their parents have been diagnosed with or suffer from a certain mental illness. Not to say that just because the mother or father have depression that the child will absolutely develop depression at some point. Rather it simply means that genetics is a risk factor and a child may be more likely to develop depression if one or both parents has or had depression.
What are children’s mental health symptoms?
Mental health problems in children and teens have symptoms just like physical health problems, although these symptoms may not always be as obvious. Paying attention to your child’s daily behavior and looking for shifts in this behavior is the best way to notice the occurrence and development of possible symptoms. A large part of raising awareness about mental health disorders in children revolves around being able to recognize the symptoms that signify professional health may be needed.
Another complication with mental health symptoms is that they can change as the child ages and can often be confused as “stages”. To avoid confusing a mental health problem with a difficult stage of development, it is recommended to seek professional help if the child is exhibiting symptoms for more than a few weeks or if these symptoms are causing issues with school, home life, or their relationships with friends or family members.
Possible signs and symptoms in young children can include:
- Frequent tantrums
- Being intensely irritable
- Sleeping too much or too little
- Frequent nightmares or daytime sleepiness
- Talking about fears or worries often
- Constant complaining about stomachs or headaches
- Repeated actions
- Repeated checking things out of fear something bad may happen (ex: making sure the door is locked)
- Struggling in school
- Not interested in socializing with other children
- Difficulty making friends
- Constantly moving and unable to sit still (with the exception of playing video games or watching TV)
Possible signs and symptoms in older children (adolescents) can include:
- Low energy
- Sleeping too much or too little
- Excessive exercise from fear of gaining weight
- Smoking, drinking, or other drug use
- Participating in risky or destructive behaviors
- Avoid social time with family or friends
- Experience periods of high energy and activity with reduced sleep
- Hearing things others cannot hear or believing someone or something is controlling them
- Self-harming behaviors
- Thoughts of suicide
How are children’s mental health issues diagnosed?
When a diagnosis is made, it is generally diagnosed when the child begins attending school. There are also cases when a diagnosis may be made earlier or later. There are also cases where a diagnosis may be made during adulthood or never. In fact, according to Mental Health America, nearly two-thirds of children with a mental health disorder never get diagnosed.
If you believe your child is exhibiting symptoms consistent with a mental health condition, you should schedule a consultation with a child psychiatrist that is experienced in treating mental illness in children. Only a professional can correctly diagnose mental illness and determine the best course of action for treatment. Additionally, a psychiatrist specializing in children’s mental health is often able to work with children easier than an adult psychiatrist.
To get the conversation started about mental health with your child and their psychiatrist, Mental Health America offers both youth and parent screenings to get a better idea of what signs and symptoms are present. Although your child and adolescent psychiatrist will likely perform a screening of their own, these screenings are often a good starting point and can at least get you and your child talking about their mental health.
How to help your child deal with their mental health
There are certain things you can do to help your child deal with their mental health. First and foremost, you need to prioritize your child’s mental health as you would their physical health. With this, you should openly be able to talk about how they are feeling without them worrying about being punished for their feelings. Ideally your child should understand that pain, fear, sadness, worry, and anger are all normal emotions and that they can talk about these feelings safely.
You will also want to be a role model for your child. This is important, especially for young children who learn by watching. To be a good mental health role model, you should talk about your own mental health and talk through your emotions with your children. And in those moments where your anger gets the best of you, be sure to apologize to your children so they learn not to communicate with anger.
Disciplining your children should also be thought of as a form of teaching, rather than simply applying physical punishment when the child misbehaves. With this, you should draw attention to positive and negative behaviors so that your child can learn what is expected of them. Boundaries about their behavior should also be clear and consistent.
You should also encourage your child to learn and grow by allowing them to be involved in social and school activities. With this, you will want to celebrate their unique talents and be accepting of their limitations. This is also something you will want to keep in mind with academics as well.
Finally, you will want to be present in your child’s life. Pay attention to their daily behavior and look for any changes that could signal a possible issue. If you feel like something is wrong, trust your gut and talk to your child. If your child continues to show signs or symptoms of a mental health condition for several weeks, schedule a consultation with a child psychiatrist and get them the help they need. The sooner you seek treatment for your child’s mental health, the better.
If you believe your child may be suffering from a childhood mental disorder or if you want to improve your child’s mental health, schedule a consultation with a child psychiatrist of NJ Family Psychiatry and Therapy today. We offer experienced child and adolescent psychiatry that is compassionate, caring, and effective for developing brains.