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Your Child's Mental Health

The mental health of your child is as important as his/her physical health. Learn more about mental health problems in children and how to nurture your child's mental health.

Mental health is how people think, feel, and act as they face life's situations. It affects how people handle stress, relate to one another, and make decisions. Mental health influences the ways individuals look at themselves, their lives, and others in their lives. Like physical health, mental health is important at every stage of life.

All aspects of our lives are affected by our mental health. Caring for and protecting our children is an obligation and is critical to their daily lives and their independence.

Children and Adolescents Can Have Serious Mental Health Problems

Like adults, children and adolescents can have mental health disorders that interfere with the way they think, feel, and act. When untreated, mental health disorders can lead to school failure, family conflicts, drug abuse, violence, and even suicide. Untreated mental health disorders can be very costly to families, communities, and the health care system.

(Ed. Note: Many children and adolescents have periods of emotional stress that would benefit from short-term treatment, but those problems would not necessarily result in what is called a "diagnosable" mental health problem. Examples of these mental health problems may include grieving the recent loss of a loved one or improving family relationships. A child's mental health has no relationship to his or her intellectual capacity. Children with and without the above mental health problems have IQ's that range from low, ie. mental retardation, to high.)

Mental Health Disorders Are More Common in Young People than Many Realize

The mental health of your child is as important as his/her physical health. Learn more about mental health problems in children and how to nurture your child's mental health.Studies show that at least one in five children and adolescents have a mental health disorder. ("Mental Health Problems" for children and adolescents refers to the range of all diagnosable emotional, behavioral, and mental disorders. They include depression, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, and anxiety, conduct, and eating disorders.) At least one in 10, or about 6 million people, have a serious emotional disturbance. ("Serious Emotional Disturbances" for children and adolescents refers to the above disorders when they severely disrupt daily functioning in home, school, or community.) Tragically, an estimated two-thirds of all young people with mental health problems are not getting the help they need.


 

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The Causes of Mental Health Problems in Children Are Complicated

Mental health disorders in children and adolescents are caused mostly by biology and environment. Examples of biological causes are genetics, chemical imbalances in the body, or damage to the central nervous system, such as a head injury. Many environmental factors also put young people at risk for developing mental health disorders. Examples include:

  • Exposure to environmental toxins, such as high levels of lead;
  • Exposure to violence, such as witnessing or being the victim of physical or sexual abuse, drive-by shootings, muggings, or other disasters;
  • Stress related to chronic poverty, discrimination, or other serious hardships; and
  • The loss of important people through death, divorce, or broken relationships.

Signs of Mental Health Disorders Can Signal a Need for Help

It's easy for parents to recognize when a child has a high fever. A child's mental health problem may be more difficult to identify. Mental health problems can't always be seen. But the symptoms can be recognized.

Children and adolescents with mental health issues need to get help as soon as possible. A variety of signs may point to mental health disorders or serious emotional disturbances in children or adolescents. Pay attention if a child or adolescent you know has any of these warning signs:

A child or adolescent is troubled by feeling:

  • Sad and hopeless for no reason, and these feelings do not go away.
  • Very angry most of the time and crying a lot or overreacting to things.
  • Worthless or guilty often.
  • Anxious or worried often.
  • Unable to get over a loss or death of someone important.
  • Extremely fearful or having unexplained fears.
  • Constantly concerned about physical problems or physical appearance.
  • Frightened that his or her mind either is controlled or is out of control.

A child or adolescent experiences big changes, such as:

  • Showing declining performance in school.
  • Losing interest in things once enjoyed.
  • Experiencing unexplained changes in sleeping or eating patterns.
  • Avoiding friends or family and wanting to be alone all the time.
  • Daydreaming too much and not completing tasks.
  • Feeling life is too hard to handle.
  • Hearing voices that cannot be explained.
  • Experiencing suicidal thoughts.

A child or adolescent experiences:

  • Poor concentration and is unable to think straight or make up his or her mind.
  • An inability to sit still or focus attention.
  • Worry about being harmed, hurting others, or doing something "bad".
  • A need to wash, clean things, or perform certain routines hundreds of times a day, in order to avoid an unsubstantiated danger.
  • Racing thoughts that are almost too fast to follow.
  • Persistent nightmares.

A child or adolescent behaves in ways that cause problems, such as:

  • Using alcohol or other drugs.
  • Eating large amounts of food and then purging, or abusing laxatives, to avoid weight gain.
  • Dieting and/or exercising obsessively.
  • Violating the rights of others or constantly breaking the law without regard for other people.
  • Setting fires.
  • Doing things that can be life threatening.
  • Killing animals.

Last Updated: 18 March 2016
Reviewed by Harry Croft, MD

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