Mental Illness

Mental Illness in Children: What are the warning signs?

By Caitlin B.

Treatment options for mental illness have progressed by leaps and bounds in recent decades. We now know that most mental health issues can be successfully treated. Many people who suffer from mental illness are able to make a full recovery and resume their normal life once they’ve received appropriate treatment.

But when treatment is delayed or when it takes too long to get a proper diagnosis, the results can be dire. When it comes to getting a prompt diagnosis, children are especially vulnerable. Children and adolescents who are struggling with mental health issues may not have the vocabulary to express what they are feeling. They may also be too young to know how to seek medical help independently. That’s why it’s crucial for the adults in their life to quickly recognize the symptoms of mental illness.

But diagnosing mental illness in children can be tricky, even for professionals. Parents, teachers, and family members may be unsure whether a child is showing symptoms of mental illness or simply acting out in an age-appropriate way.

If you’re worried that a child you know might be suffering from mental illness, the best course of action is always to speak to the child’s pediatrician and ask them how to get a proper mental-health evaluation. But it may be difficult to know when you should share your concerns with a medical professional.

Worried about a child or adolescent’s mental health? Here are some red flags to watch out for:

The child is often sick, but doesn’t show any clear symptoms

Frequent bouts of illness are normal for young children, but most childhood illnesses show clear symptoms like a runny nose, coughing, or fever. If the child often complains about feeling ill but doesn’t have a fever, rash, or other distinct symptoms, ask a doctor for advice.

Children who are suffering from emotional or psychological issues may not know how to describe what they’re feeling. They may simply say that they feel “sick”. A child who is trying to avoid a person or situation that triggers their mental illness—like a child who becomes anxious whenever they are at school or camp—may also constantly claim to be ill.

According to the Mayo Clinic, children with mental health issues frequently complain of vague symptoms like headaches or stomachaches. If your child often claims to feel sick but hasn’t received a diagnosis that explains their symptoms, it’s time to talk to a medical professional.

The child struggles to interact with others

Many children go through a phase where they are shy or nervous around unfamiliar people. It’s normal for a toddler to be upset about being left with a new babysitter, just like it’s normal for a kindergartener to cry or become anxious on their very first day or school. But most children adjust fairly quickly and can get along with others once they’ve had a few exposures a new person.

If you notice that a certain child always has trouble making friends with other children or is constantly uncomfortable even with people they know well, such as a familiar teacher or coach, this could be a sign that the child needs to be screened for mental health issues or developmental delays.

Some children are naturally introverted, so it’s not always a cause for concern if a child seems to prefer to be alone. But if they struggle with basic social skills or lag behind when it comes to important developmental milestones, this could suggest that the child needs extra care.

The child seems sad or angry all the time 

Anyone who regularly interacts with children will agree that kids can be temperamental! Tantrums are common in toddlers, and even older children may sometimes struggle to regulate their emotions. Occasional fits of crying or irritability are normal.

But if you notice that a child seems frequently unhappy, you should speak to a doctor or counselor about further evaluation. Of course, it’s also a good idea to speak to the child and ask if there is anything making them upset that they’d like to talk about. But sometimes children struggling with serious trauma—like sexual abuse or severe bullying—may not know how to speak to their teachers, coaches, or family members about what’s going on. A professional therapist can help get to the root of the issue.

The child shares thoughts of violence or suicide, or says that they hate themselves

Sometimes adults assume that suicidal behavior or self-harm is a problem that only affects teens or adults. But even very young children can develop behaviors that threaten their health. Self-harm and eating disorders in young children are not unheard of, and in some cases, young children can even attempt suicide. A 2015 study showed that as many as 1 in 10 preschool-aged children may exhibit suicidal thoughts or behaviors. The study also showed that these children often continue to struggle with serious mental health issues later in life.

If a child ever speaks about wanting to hurt themselves or others, or seems preoccupied with thoughts of death, consult a medical professional right away.

The child undergoes a sudden and dramatic change in behavior

One of the most common signs that something is wrong is if the child suddenly begins acting differently. You may not need to worry if a child who usually prefers to keep to themselves says they want to skip going to camp this year. But if a child who is typically outgoing and friendly abruptly stops spending time with friends, this can be a sign that something is wrong. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, it’s also a cause for concern if a child suddenly regresses to behavior they had previously outgrown, like bedwetting.

Mental illness in children can strike very suddenly. While adults who are experiencing the onset of mental illness often feel progressively worse over a period of weeks and months, a child’s behavior can seem to change without warning. A child who is struggling with mental illness might feel symptoms for some time but not show these symptoms outwardly. By the time the symptoms become noticeable to others, the child’s behavior may be extreme or startling. If your child suddenly starts to behave in a way that is abnormal for them—or if their behavior is violent, irrational, or dangerous—you should consult a doctor as soon as possible.

Hope for children with mental illness

While mental illness is always painful and confusing, particularly when it’s first diagnosed, children who receive an accurate diagnosis and appropriate treatment for their mental illness often have an excellent long-term prognosis. For many children, mental illness is a long-term yet manageable condition. Their illness requires ongoing treatment, but doesn’t have to prevent them from making friends, succeeding in school, and having a bright future.

But children who don’t get the treatment they need may struggle. The National Alliance on Mental Illness cautions that untreated mental illness in children can lead to drug use, risky sexual behavior, academic disengagement, disciplinary problems with school or with the law, and more. In some cases, the child may even harm themselves or others.

While some behaviors—like talking about suicide or violent behavior toward peers—are obvious signs that something is wrong, other signs may not be as clear. If you are a parent, you know your child best! If anything doesn’t seem right, don’t hesitate to talk to your child’s pediatrician or school counselor. Trust your instincts, and don’t be afraid to ask for a formal mental-health screening by a psychologist or psychiatrist.

If you can’t afford treatment with a private therapist or psychiatrist, your child’s school may be able to offer recommendations for free or low-cost services in your area. If you think your child’s mental health issues are causing them to struggle in school, you can formally request that the school evaluate your child for an Individualized Education Plan, or IEP. An IEP can require the school or district to offer support services you child needs, like counseling sessions, extra tutoring, or the chance to take exams in a separate setting.

Whenever a child or adolescent shows signs of mental illness, it’s important to act fast. Parents, family members, and teachers shouldn’t hesitate to take action when something doesn’t seem right. Prompt mental health care can resolve to issue and eventually lead to a happier and healthier child.

Parents and teachers, what warning signs do you look for when it comes to a child’s mental health? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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