Understanding the Challenges of Children’s Mental Health

Mental health issues have gained attention in the media recently, and surprising new information is revealing that mental disorders in children are more common. It is estimated that at least one-fourth of children and teens will encounter some kind of mental disorder within a year, and about one-third of these age groups will experience a form of mental disorder throughout their life. With so many areas of impact, it is important for parents and guardians to understand how mental health concerns affect children.

Common Disorder Types

The types of disorders that children can experience can range from mild and common to severe. The most common kids are associated with anxiety disorders, such as separation anxiety disorder and generalized anxiety disorder. Many people have heard of the common behavioral disorder of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and mood impacting disorders like depression. In teens, substance abuse disorders are also concerns. These are considered the most common disorders in a younger demographic because statistical research estimates that about 10% of school-age children suffer from ADHD, which translates into over six million children. Depression can occur within each age bracket, with the percentage of those suffering ranging from 2% up to 20% by the time they move from childhood to adolescents near adulthood. Teens have their own mental health concerns as well, with addictions, bipolar disorder, and eating disorders being the most common in these age groups.

Autism spectrum disorders are also categorized as a mental disorder, and these have a lifelong impact on both the child with the disorder and the family or caregivers. Generally speaking, individuals who are diagnosed as being on the spectrum experience a developmental disorder that suffers from communication impaction, behavior, and social interaction challenges. Statistically, about one in every 59 children are diagnosed with the condition, which is a 15% increase over the two years.

Common Symptoms and Signs

For kids who have a mental disorder, they may experience the symptoms that are associated with the disorder they have been diagnosed with, but there are other symptoms that share cross-over between the various illnesses. These symptoms could include:

  • Persistent feelings or complaints of boredom
  • Poor school performance
  • Frequently complaining of physical ailments such as stomachaches or headaches
  • Sleeping dysfunctions such as sleepwalking, having nightmares, bedwetting, or sleeping too much
  • Regression behaviors toward a younger age period like throwing tantrum and becoming clingy
  • Aggressive behaviors or continuous noncompliance
  • Risk-taking behaviors and not considering personal safety issues like running into the street, engaging in fights, or handling unsafe items

The Risk Factors

Research has not been able to pinpoint a specific definitive cause for mental health disorders that occur during childhood, just it is difficult to identify a single cause for mental illness at any age.  However, there is often a combination of psychological, biological, and environmental risk factors that are associated with the development of a mental health concern. Mental illness is generally associated with an imbalance of serotonin or dopamine in the brain, smaller sized elements of the brain, and too much activity in some areas of the brain. Some diagnoses are also more common according to gender, as girls are often diagnosed with depression and anxiety over boys, just as ADHD and autism disorder are more prevalent in boys. This could indicate that genetic and biological components also affect risk factors for a mental health diagnosis. Children with a parent who is mentally ill are four times more likely to develop an illness as well. There are also some physical factors that seem to affect teens who develop a mental disorder, such as having had a low birth weight, difficulty sleeping, and having a teenage mother when the individual was born.

Psychological Factors

Children who have a poor body image, low self-esteem, tendencies to be highly critical of one’s self, and feelings of helplessness or loss of control when dealing with negative events have greater psychological risk factors for developing a mental illness. In teenagers, the stress associated with body changes, like the changing puberty hormones, can impact how a teen responds to the relationships around them and impact things like depression or anxiety. Teens who have clinical anxiety, ADHD, conduct disorder, or who have cognitive difficulties may also be at greater risk for developing a mental illness.

Getting a Diagnosis

If a parent or legal guardian suspect that there may be a mental illness affecting their child’s behavior, taking them to a pediatrician, licensed mental health therapist, social workers, physician assistants, psychologists, or psychiatrists can help secure a formal diagnosis. An extensive medical interview and physical examination are usually conducted to assess the areas that fit a specific diagnosis, or a healthcare professional might refer the child to a specialist in the areas of the disorder. Laboratory tests are also conducted during the early stages of diagnosis to potentially rule out adverse effects from the medication or the other causes.

The Sad Truth

Unfortunately, kids can be cruel to their peers, especially when something is visibly different. When your child is bullied, it can further complicate the challenges your family and child are already dealing with. The symptoms of aggression, depression, poor social interaction are exacerbated when an individual feels intimidated, threatened, or exposed to violence. The statistics of bullying and mental illness are tragic, as one can influence the other and lead to more severe conditions. If your child is exposed to the trauma and stress of bullying it can be a significant factor in how your child is able to cope with the mental health diagnosis.

Taking care of your child’s mental well-being is just as important as physical well-being. Talk to your child’s healthcare provider if you have noticed any of the symptoms of a mental illness or disorder.

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