Mental Health Begins in Childhood

It’s National Children’s Mental Health Awareness Week! If you’ve ever been to counseling before, you have probably learned that your childhood experiences have a significant impact on the way you are as an adult. Trauma, family interactions, genetics, etc. in childhood all are factors that “set the stage” for the rest of your life, therefore, understanding the importance of mental illness and seeking mental health for children is important and necessary.  Here, we’ll look at an overview of childhood mental illness and address some common questions about overall childhood mental health.

What mental health issues are children facing in 2018?

The 2016 National Survey of Children’s Health reported that 46% of America’s youth have experienced at least one trauma, which includes familial divorce, living with someone with a mental illness, parent/guardian spending time in jail, abuse/neglect, discrimination due to race or ethnicity, and the death of a parent or loved one, among other adverse childhood experiences. (https://www.samhsa.gov/sites/default/files/brief_report_natl_childrens_mh_awareness_day.pdf)

These children are at higher risk for developing emotional disturbances, and therefore other serious mental illnesses. Also keep in mind, that just as commonly as adults, children also experience mental illnesses which may be exacerbated by the fact that children’s brains are rapidly developing in early childhood. What gets wired in childhood remains wired without treatment.

Common Diagnoses

Among children, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is one of the most common disorders.  Children also frequently experience a number of anxiety disorders, from panic attacks to generalized anxiety which can impair functioning.  Because children’s emotional and psychological problems often manifest themselves in their behaviors, children often are diagnosed with conduct disorders. Find out from your counselor about his/her approach to these issues. Children can also be diagnosed with depression, eating disorders, bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses.  It is important to consider the genetic aspects of mental illness in your family as well as the way a child’s environment can trigger or exacerbate mental health symptoms. The most important thing to remember is that children can and do experience mental illness, and dismissing it as something that they will “grow out of” may have unintended but harmful consequences.

How can I determine if my child has a mental illness?

If you have concerns about your child’s mental health, you can always start by consulting with their pediatrician. They may refer you to a counselor or psychiatrist, each of whom can perform evaluations and treatment for your child. Also consider learning about attachment theory and how relationships can help heal many mental health diagnoses (especially anxiety, depression, and conduct disorders). For children ages 3-12, Play Therapy (www.a4pt.org) is a well-studied and evidenced-based approach for helping children with problems of mental illness, along with other modalities like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, etc.

Is medication okay for my child?

Always consult a psychiatrist about your questions regarding medication for your child. What is important to note is that mental illness occurs and functions in the brain just as a physical illness may do to the body. Some physical illnesses require medication in order to become stable, and some may be required for longer periods of time. A psychiatrist can tell you about the risks of medication, but there are safe medications that can be taken by children to help them reach mental health. Medication is best supplemented by therapeutic treatment and counseling.

Early intervention is key for children’s well-being. When you seek treatment for your child, you break the stigma of mental illness, model intentionality in sustaining mental health, and show your child that you will advocate for their needs and give them a voice. Find a counselor who will also advocate for your child, and you’ll be setting them up for priceless health for a lifetime.

-Mary Shea