The Challenge of Children’s Mental Health

By Cathy Malmon, LMFT, LICSW

Childrens_Mental_Health_Awareness_Calli_Institute_Maple_Grove_MNI grew up in an era (the 50’s and 60’s) when mental health was not discussed at all, let alone considered as something that children had. Children could have separation anxiety; nervous stomachs, concentration problems or were labeled as “sensitive”, “angry” or “different”.

Adolescence was supposed to be somewhat difficult and the behaviors we now see as potential symptoms of mood, anxiety, or thought disorders were not viewed through the lens of mental health. Behaviors were seen as problems not as symptoms of underlying issues. The pediatrician was often the only first line of mental health assessment.

Children and teens can and do experience intense emotions. It is normal to feel sad or anxious about school, family, and friendships. Body changes, hormonal changes, physiological changes can contribute to fluctuating moods. Mental health disorders are different in the persistence, duration, and intensity of the symptoms.

Research has indicated that most mental health disorders follow a developmental course and some signs can be seen before adulthood. Many adults who suffer from obsessive-compulsive disorder, depression, social anxiety, schizophrenia, autism, and bipolar disorder showed signs before they were 24 years old (National Institute of Mental Health).

The American Psychological Association (APA) website noted:
“An estimated 15 million of our nation’s young children can currently be diagnosed with a mental health disorder. Many more are at risk of developing a disorder due to risk factors in their biology or genetics; within their families, schools and communities; and among their peers”.

Life for our children is very different than it was decades ago. The complexion of families has changed. It is not unusual for children to be dealing with the transition of parental divorce, changes in schools, and home, physical or mental changes in loved ones and economic changes.

Technology and the explosion of social media sites mean that our children might be spending more time with friends on a screen rather than in face-to-face contact. Loneliness and isolation do not make good companions. Notice if your child or loved one seems to be spending more time alone.

What should Parents or Caregivers look for?

• Feeling sad or withdrawn for more than two weeks
• Self-injurious, risky behavior, getting into fights, wanting to hurt others
• Suicidal thoughts, comments about being better off dead, suicide attempts
• Showing extremes in behavior, i.e. sleeping, eating,
• Extremes in dieting, exercise, use of laxatives, extreme focus on food, calories
• Intense worries or fears that interfere with daily functioning
• Use of drugs or alcohol
• Drastic changes in behavior, personality

Don’t be afraid to be direct if you have concerns.
• I’m worried about you.
• How are you feeling about ___________?
• Can we talk about this or would you feel more comfortable talking to someone else?
• Can you tell me if you have thoughts about harming yourself or others?
• I have seen changes in you that worry me. (Be direct, loving and specific)
• I might not understand but I want to listen to you.

Some online resources include:

Talk to each other, talk to your child or the child in your life.

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