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Understanding Children's Mental Health

Connecting the dots

May 2012

As a parent, there is perhaps nothing more difficult than the nagging feeling that something is "not quite right" with your child. It could be that he is not hitting those developmental milestones the pediatrician asks you about, or that she seems socially "behind" her friends at your weekly play date.

Coping with a mental illness diagnosis can be especially rough for parents, as the term "mental illness" comes with much stigma and misconception. If you or someone you know is dealing with this diagnosis, then perhaps the following information can help.

Defining Mental Illness

Mental illness is a broad term that encapsulates a variety of behaviors and specific disorders. According to Cherie Bridges-Patrick, LCSW, clinical supervisor at Indianapolis' Reach For Youth, mental illness can be defined as "a psychological syndrome or behavioral pattern that is associated with subjective distress and/or objective impairment … Mental illness is any disease or condition that affects the way a person thinks, feels, behaves, and/or relates to others and to his or her surroundings."

Aja Casey, a child therapist and board member with the National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI) in Indianapolis, added mental illness as a disease that disrupts a person's thinking, resulting in an "altered or diminished capacity for 'normal' thought processing and problem solving." Additionally, children and adolescents with mental illness have feelings or behaviors that prevent them from functioning well in their environments.

Because mental illness can cover such a wide spectrum of disorders, Casey said it is important for parents to take stock of their child's development in terms of what is age-appropriate. "Every child is different," Casey said, "but there is an objective set of milestones for each age group."

Bridges-Patrick added that mental illness in children "presents differently" than it does in adults. For example, depression in children may look like anger, which could include tantrums, drop in grades, or withdrawal.

"Because children often do not have the skills to sufficiently verbally express what they may be feeling, they frequently exhibit behaviors that could be an indication that something needs to be addressed," she said.

One Parent's Observations

For Janet Seide, it started with a simple observation: her 2-year-old son, Andrew, seemed to have a hearing problem. "He wasn't responding to his name," said Seide of Andrew, who is now 16. "He also seemed to be behind verbally," she added.

However, Seide initially chalked Andrew's behavior up to a few things. She initially thought that Andrew's linguistic delays could simply be that he "was a boy, and boys are typically a little behind [girls] in their verbal skills." Also, Seide noted that she didn't start talking until age 2, so she figured Andrew was simply following the same developmental schedule. Finally, she said she didn't think Andrew's problem was necessarily verbal, but that "he just couldn't hear."

After bringing up her concerns to her pediatrician, Seide was referred to specialists at a local hospital. After roughly a year of tests and evaluations, Andrew was diagnosed with autism.


If you suspect your child may have mental illness, you should voice your concerns to your pediatrician. Casey explained, "Parents who have concerns about their children's mental health can first speak to a primary care physician … to get a referral for further evaluations."

Once parents have voiced their concerns to their pediatrician, Casey said that the doctor might refer your child and his parents to a psychologist, psychiatrist, or psychotherapist for a full evaluation. These evaluations are age-, stage-, and diagnosis-specific, and can include diagnostic tests, parent reports, and child observations, explains Casey.

There are lots of resources and treatment options available for parents and children coping with this diagnosis, and can include behavioral modifications or medication regiments. Treatment levels can range anywhere from outpatient, which is the least restrictive, to inpatient or residential care, said Bridges-Patrick.

Whatever course of treatment you decide upon, however, all of the experts agree that getting intervention as early as possible is key.

Moving Forward

While mental illness is not curable, with early intervention, Bridges-Patrick said that parents can expect to see significant progress and improvements in their child's symptoms and behaviors. "Many mental health disorders, once properly addressed, have the potential for very positive and long-term outcomes," she said.

She added that, in addition to early intervention, "following the advice (treatment guidance)" is key. She also added that Parenting a child with a mental disorder can be frightening and exhausting, so parents need to invest in self-care, such as joining a support group or having some type of support system to help cope.

Casey agreed, adding, "If a parent has a child with mental illness, it's OK. It will be trying, but if you follow through with services, you'll have a child that understands his illness, and learns how to cope with it."

When parents first suspect their child has mental illness, "it can be devastating," Seide explained, "but there are so many options available now." Seide said she can't emphasize enough the importance of early intervention; she's convinced that Andrew's early diagnosis and subsequent treatment has made all the difference. "As long as you see your child progress," Seide concluded, "there's hope."

Tags: Education, In This Issue, Kids, Parenting, Toddler, Tweens & Teens

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