A new year can bring hope and change. As a clinician I try to help teach parents and caregivers how to recognize mental illness traits in children. Just like adults, children can be plagued with mental health disorders. According to the Mayo Clinic, 1 in 5 children has a mental illness. For some of these youths, the disease can significantly impact their daily lives. However, many parents and caregivers do not know what red flags to look for in their kids. The warning signs and symptoms vary by age and type of mental illness. However it is important to notice any change in the following areas:
1. Mood changes- All children experience mood changes regularly, however if the mood change lasts longer than 2 weeks and is significant, this could be a red flag. If their mood swings are causing problems with their relationships at home or school this is also concerning.
2. Intense Feelings- Take note to feelings that have an overwhelming fear for no reason. Does your child’s intense feelings or worries interfere with their daily activities?
3. Behavior Changes- These include drastic changes in behavior or personality. They can also include dangerous or out of control behavior. Hurting themselves or others or attempting to hurt self or others.
4. Concentration Problems- Drastic changes in grades, trouble sitting still or trouble focusing.
5. Changes in weight- Any sudden weight gain or loss could be an indicator something is not right.
6. Physical Symptoms- Children can develop headaches, stomach aches or other aches in pains in their bodies. Children can sometimes develop these symptoms rather than feeling sad or anxious.
7. Physical Harm- Self-Harm can sometimes go hand in hand with mental illness. Self- harm or self-injury is when one deliberately harms their own body, such as burning, biting, scratching, and/or cutting are a few examples. Children with mental illness can also develop suicidal thoughts or attempt suicide. These symptoms must be immediately be assessed by a medical professional for the child’s safety.
8. Substance Abuse- Some kids may use drugs or alcohol to try and cope or block out their feelings.
If you are concerned about your child’s mental health, you are not alone. Please do not think your child will outgrow your concerns. You are your child’s best advocate. Your child often times will not be able to communicate what is going on with their body, they are just kids! They need you to notice what is going on and get them the medical intervention they need. Always listen to your inner voice. If you feel “something is off or just not right” with your child, you’re probably correct.
First, start with individuals that know your child, like teachers, coaches and or clergy to see if they have noticed any sudden changes or have any concerns with your child. The more information you can gather will be helpful for your medical professional. If your child has communicated suicidal thoughts, has had a suicide attempt, admits to self-harm or you see signs of self-harm, such as cutting, they should be seen immediately by a doctor. If this is not possible call 911.
Next, seek out an appointment with your child’s doctor. This professional knows your child best and can be a good starting point to see if further information or assessment is needed to determine if your child has a mental health condition based on the Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). This is a guide published by the American Psychiatric Association that explains the signs and symptoms that mark mental health conditions. Once you have seen a medical professional your child can begin the treatment plan you and your doctor feel will best suit your child.
Most importantly, do not feel embarrassed by your child’s mental health issues. When a parent or caregiver asks me for advice, my response is, “If your child had a fever for more ha two days, would you take him/her to a doctor?” I always get the response, “of course!” “And if the diagnoses is an ear infection, would you give him/her the anti-bio tic prescribed by the doctor?” Again, the emphatic “yes” response. So why do many parents struggle with treatment for their child’s mental health? It’s the stigma of mental illness. It’s the “no, not my child” syndrome.
Treating children with mental health disorders should be no different from any other illness. Depending on the diagnoses, parents have treatment options. However, the decision not to seek treatment should not be one of them. I have yet to hear of a family refusing treatment for their child’s cancer, leukemia or diabetes. Mental health disorders can turn out to be just as terminal if left untreated.My goal is to provide you with the characteristics of mental disorders and encourage you to join the fight to remove the stigma. Please view this video: https://youtu.be/21jqtJ-UB_w
Do you recall a time when a child exhibited signs of mental illness and the parent(s) were in denial? Or are you a parent of child who is in treatment? Please share your thoughts in the comment section.
Mendy Blake, LCSW
Mendy Blake has been a licensed clinical social worker for 11 years and in the mental health field for 18 years. She has worked in a variety of mental health fields. Currently, she is a school social worker for Joliet Public Schools District 86. She has also worked in the corrections setting, private practice setting and as a Department of Children Family Service (DCFS) consultant. As a consultant, she provided in-home based therapy for foster children foster parents along with the biological parents.
Throughout her career, she has worked with many students and clients who have been plagued with undiagnosed mental health issues. Her mission is to help clients, parents and loved ones who are impacted or know someone who is impacted by a mental illness, to get the support and treatment they need to live their lives to their fullest potential. Helping at-risk students and families is her true calling.