For many children, their days are filled with carefree play. For others, though, childhood is fraught with anxiety, impulsiveness, or even more serious mental health conditions. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), “Research shows that half of all lifetime cases of mental illness begin by age 14.”
While it is not entirely understood why some children develop mental health disorders, researchers are making progress in identifying the early development stages of these conditions. It is known that some mental health conditions run in families and extensive research has been done on families of children with these disorders, adopted children, and twins. For example, it is known that if an identical twin has schizophrenia, the other twin has at least a 50% chance of also developing it. Researchers are studying possible links between certain genes and serious conditions like schizophrenia, depression, and bipolar disorder.
If parents seek help early on, it may prevent the illness from fully developing. There is no cure for mental illness, but there are successful treatments for many of them.
What mental health conditions affect children?
While children and adults can suffer from the same mental health conditions, they may express them in very different ways. Depressed children, for instance, often show extreme irritability while their adult counterparts outwardly exhibit their depression through sadness. Mental health conditions found in some children include:
- Anxiety disorders. Children who have anxiety disorders — such as obsessive compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, social phobia and generalized anxiety disorder — experience anxiety as a persistent problem that interferes with their daily activities. While some amount of worry is normal for children, an anxiety disorder should be considered if worry and stress make it difficult to function normally.
- Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). ADHD is a chronic behavioral disorder that usually appears before the age of seven. It is characterized by behavior that is hyperactive, impulsive, or inattentive. There are several different types of ADHD. Some children are primarily inattentive and don't display signs of hyperactivity. Others, however, are hyperactive and/or impulsive. The rest exhibit a mixture of these symptoms.
- Autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Autism spectrum disorder is a serious developmental disorder that usually appears before age three. ASD ranges in severity, but generally children with ASD have difficulty communicating, will lack normal social interaction skills and engage in a variety of unusual and often characteristic behaviors, such as repetitive movements. There is no specific medical treatment for ASD and its cause remains unclear.
- Eating disorders. Eating disorders are serious disturbances in eating behavior and typically develop during adolescence, most often in females. They also occur with feelings of distress or excessive concern about body shape or weight. The main types of eating disorders are anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder.
- Mood disorders. Mood disorders — such as depression and bipolar disorder — can cause a child to feel persistent feelings of sadness or extreme mood swings that are much more severe than the normal mood swings many people experience. Depression in children and teens is not rare. Because normal behaviors vary from one childhood stage to another, however, it can be difficult to tell whether a child is just going through a temporary phase or is suffering from depression. Bipolar disorder is a mental health condition marked by extreme swings in mood, energy, and the ability to function. The mood changes of bipolar disorder are more dramatic than normal ups and downs. They can hurt relationships and cause poor job or school performance.
- Schizophrenia is a chronic, severe, and progressively disabling disease of the brain. Most often appearing in the late teen years or through the 20s, this chronic mental illness causes a child to lose touch with reality (psychosis). People with schizophrenia often suffer terrifying symptoms, such as hearing voices not heard by others, or believing that other people are reading their minds, controlling their thoughts, or plotting to harm them. These symptoms may leave them fearful and withdrawn. Their speech and behavior can be so disorganized that they may be incomprehensible or frightening to others.
Treatment for mental health disorders in children varies by the type and severity of the illness, but may include:
- Psychotherapy—Psychotherapy is sometimes known as “talk therapy”. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a types of psychotherapy that teaches a person different ways of thinking, behaving, and reacting to anxiety-producing and fearful situations. With eating disorders, for instance, CBT can help a child develop a healthier and more realistic self-image.
- Self-Help Groups—Self-help or support groups may help some children by sharing their problems and realizing that they are not alone in experiencing them.
- Stress Management Techniques—Stress management techniques like meditation and exercise teach children how to calm themselves and may enhance the effects of other therapies.
- Medication—Medication does not cure mental health disorders but often relieves symptoms. Medication also can be used in combination with psychotherapy to help achieve a better outcome. All medications must be taken regularly to prevent symptoms from reoccurring.
- Educational Interventions—In the school setting, there are other programs that may be used, especially for mental health conditions like autism. The relationship-based developmental program is one example that focuses on the developmental, emotional, and social abilities of the child. In addition, other educational interventions may include:
- Speech and language therapy
- Occupational therapy
- Social skills instruction—to help teach appropriate social interactions
- Sensory integration therapy—to help with organizing sensory information
- Developmental optometry—to help with vision problems related to learning
It is important not to overlook the impact that a child’s mental health condition may have on the rest of the family. Counseling can provide you and your family with support, education, and guidance. If you believe that your child may have a mental health condition, please consult your family physician for more information about what treatments are available.
If you have concerns or your child is experiencing symptoms, Dr. Lauren Good of LewisGale Physicians can answer all of your questions. You can call the practice at (540) 772-3580 or book an appointment online below.