Source: Indys Child Parenting Magazine

Exploring Children's Mental Health
Facing the facts

by Kerry Kirk

May 01, 2011

Mood disorders in children, such as anxiety, depression and bipolar disorder, affect more than 10 percent of America’s youth, and with the hard economic times and divorce rates at an all-time high, the number of mood disorders seen in children has risen.

Jennifer Murphy, the office coordinator for Center Point Counseling and participant coordinator for New Day Program, said in her experience that divorce is the most common reason for onset of mental illnesses in children. Murphy deals with children who suffer from any form of mental debilitation, and said problems often stem from the type of environment the child is surrounded by.

Many children suffer from hostile environments surrounding divorce, and research shows that children have a tendency to be very egocentric and tend to blame themselves in situations. Therefore, these feelings are internalized and are often the reason as to how depression and anxiety starts with kids.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health, research indicates that depression onset is occurring earlier in life today than it has been in past decades. Early-onset depression often persists, recurs, and continues into adulthood, and sometimes depression can turn into a more severe mental illness when the child grows older.

Often times, professionals come across parents that do not want to admit their child has a problem.

Mike Robinson, manager of specialized treatment services at The Children’s Home in Cincinnati, said “[Mental illness] is similar to physical illness, they shouldn't be seen as any different,” he said. “If your kid was diagnosed with junior diabetes, you would have no problem getting treatment. So if they’re diagnosed with depression, what’s the difference? Both can be life threatening, both be can treated, why not fix it.”

Another issue often argued when diagnosing mental health issues in children is that it can be both over-diagnosed and misdiagnosed. Many doctors agree that mental illness can be overlooked and written off, and instead it is seen as children just misbehaving.

There are many misconceptions when it comes to children suffering from mental illness. In Robinson’s experience, he said that, “Middle and upper class folks are embarrassed something may be wrong with their child at an emotional level,” whereas some believe their child will ‘snap’ out of it.

Robinson suggests for parents to not relate their child’s mental illness to something embarrassing, or to put the blame on the child, but rather to do what’s necessary to fix the illness.

“Children definitely need consistency and that may help with behavior issues by informing them what’s going on,” Murphy said. “There is often fear and anxiety because they don’t know what’s going to happen next, so you can fix that by telling them ahead of time and it may help with outbreaks.” This sort of proactive treatment is usually praised.

There are many treatments for mood disorders, with therapy and medication being the most common forms in helping a child deal with their anxiety and depression issues. But the treatment ultimately depends on the child and their environment.

Treating a child with medication is very controversial. Children are sometimes developmentally treated like “little adults”, where people believe that if a medication works for an adult it will work for a child at a lower dose. But this is not the case. Professionals stress that medication for children should never be experimented with and should always be monitored by a professional.

Just like any other illness, physical or mental, a child’s state of health will directly relate to the type of treatment they are given and their support system. It’s especially important for children to seek medical and professional help at the first signs of illness.

Murphy said children with mental illnesses who are treated earlier on, tend to develop and progress better than those who are not treated early.

Many parents worry about their child who suffers from a mental disorder having a normal life, but Murphy said parents should only worry if their child isn’t receiving help.

“The more proactive parents can be, and parents have an intuition, the more ahead of the game they can be and the better it can be for their children,” Murphy said. “If they suspect something is going on, research it, don’t let it go unnoticed to try to avoid a diagnosis that may come.”

It’s important to remember that anyone can suffer from a mental illness, and if a family member has a mental illness, it makes a child more susceptible to having one as well.

But help and support is out there, as there are places all over the country and in your community that are dedicated to help parents, children and family members deal with mental illness.

Common Signs & Symptoms of Mental Illness in Children:

Bipolar Disorder, manic symptoms:

• Severe changes in mood compared to others of the same age and background - either unusually happy or silly, or very irritable, angry, agitated or aggressive

• Unrealistic highs in self-esteem; a teenager who feels all powerful, like a superhero with special powers

• Great increase in energy and the ability to go with little or no sleep for days without feeling tired

• Increase in talking; the adolescent talks too much, too fast, changes topics too quickly, and cannot be interrupted

• Distractibility; the teen's attention moves constantly from one thing to the next

• Repeated high risk-taking behavior; such as, abusing alcohol and drugs, reckless driving, or sexual promiscuity

Bipolar Disorder, depressive symptoms:

• Irritability, depressed mood

• Persistent sadness, frequent crying

• Thoughts of death or suicide

Signs of Bipolar Disorder:

• Loss of enjoyment in favorite activities

• Frequent complaints of physical illnesses, such as headaches or stomachaches

• Low energy levels, fatigue, poor concentration, complaints of boredom

• Major change in eating or sleeping patterns, such as oversleeping or overeating

Signs of Depression:

• Frequent sadness, tearfulness, crying, hopelessness

• Decreased interest in activities, or inability to enjoy previously favorite activities

• Persistent boredom; low energy

• Social isolation, poor communication

• Low self esteem and guilt

• Extreme sensitivity to rejection or failure

• Increased irritability, anger, or hostility

• Difficulty with relationships

• Frequent complaints of physical illnesses such as headaches and stomachaches

• Frequent absences from school or poor performance in school

• Poor concentration

• A major change in eating and/or sleeping patterns

• Talk of or efforts to run away from home

• Thoughts or expressions of suicide or self destructive behavior

Signs of Separation Anxiety:

• Constant thoughts and fears about safety of self and parents

• Refusing to go to school

• Frequent stomachaches and other physical complaints

• Extreme worries about sleeping away from home

• Overly clingy

• Panic or tantrums at times of separation from parents

• Trouble sleeping or nightmares

Signs of Anxiety:

• Afraid to meet or talk to new people

• May have few friends outside the family

• Worrying about things before they happen

• Constant worries or concern about school performance, friends, or sports

• Repetitive thoughts or actions (obsessions)

• Fears of embarrassment or making mistakes

• Low self-esteem

Facts provided by the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, provided by Dr. Strawn