Contributed by Laura Walker
As a parent, one of our greatest priorities is meeting the various needs of our children—if they are hungry, we feed them; if they have a cut, we bandage it; if they are ill, we take them to see a doctor. But why don’t we act as quickly when our child has challenges with their mental health? Maybe if we shifted the way we look at mental health, people would admit they are struggling and seek help for themselves or their children.
A study released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows a number of mental disorders are on the rise among children between the ages of three and 17. During the study, the CDC identified six specific mental, behavioral and developmental disorders emerging in the greatest prevalence: attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), behavior or conduct disorders, major depression, anxiety, autism and Tourette’s Syndrome. In total, the CDC concluded that approximately 1 in 5 of children in the United States, either currently or at some point during their adolescent life, experience serious symptoms of a mental health disorder. Sadly, fewer than 20 percent ever receive the help they need.
The mental health stigma in the United States has silenced many who are affected for fear of judgement. In truth, we all experience some degree of depression, anxiety, or trauma at some point in our lives; however, this stigma has caused many to feel ashamed of these feelings. When children don’t learn healthy ways to express “big emotions,” such as sadness, anger, worry, fear or even excitement, they can develop negative, destructive behaviors that can have a profound impact on their lives. As children fall deeper into these challenges, they are more likely to turn to alcohol, drugs, self-harm such as cutting, or even suicide. It is important for parents, teachers and individuals who work with children to know the warning signs of mental health disorders so intervention can be sought quickly.
Warning signs for mental health disorders in children and adolescents:
Mood changes. Look for feelings of sadness or withdrawal that last at least two weeks or severe mood swings that cause problems in relationships at home or school.
Intense feelings. Be aware of feelings of overwhelming fear for no reason, or worries or fears intense enough to interfere with daily activities.
Behavior changes. Drastic changes in behavior or personality, as well as dangerous or out-of-control behavior. Fighting frequently, using weapons and expressing a desire to hurt others are also warning signs.
Difficulty concentrating. Look for signs of trouble focusing or an inability to sit still for any length of time, both of which might lead to poor performance in school.
Unexplained weight loss. A sudden loss of appetite, frequent vomiting or use of laxatives might indicate an eating disorder.
Physical symptoms. Compared with adults, children with a mental health condition may develop chronic headaches and stomachaches rather than sadness or anxiety.
Physical harm. Sometimes a mental health condition leads to self-injury, also called self-harm. This is the act of deliberately harming your own body, such as cutting or burning yourself. Children with a mental health condition also may develop suicidal thoughts or actually attempt suicide.
Substance abuse. Some kids use drugs or alcohol to try to cope with their feelings.
The vast majority of individuals who receive help from a qualified behavioral health provider are able to recover and go on to lead happy, healthy and productive lives. It is important to encourage those experiencing mental health issues to seek help to avoid prolonged effects which can eventually lead to serious physical health complications such as an increased risk of heart disease, stroke and reduced neuro function.
A collaborative effort between parents, educators, community advocates and healthcare professionals can put an end to the mental health stigma that plagues our society. More awareness of the facts on mental health can lead to more acceptance and the breaking down of stereotypes, prejudices and discrimination of those facing mental health disorders.
Encourage your child to talk about their feelings and any concerns they have. Actively listen and reassure your child you will support them no matter what. Recognizing early when your child is struggling and taking steps toward getting them the help they need will help reiterate that it is ok to struggle and it’s ok to ask for help. A visit with your child’s doctor can be a great first step in accessing the help he or she needs.
The sooner we as a society view mental health challenges in the same light we do physical ailments such as diabetes, cancer, or asthma, the better off our children will be. If your child or someone you know is struggling with their mental health, there are a number of resources available. The Suicide Prevention Helpline (1-800-273-8255) provides free, confidential support for people in crisis. There is also a Crisis Text Line that will connect texters with a volunteer crisis counselor. You can access this service by texting HOME to 741741 on your mobile device. You can also contact the Mississippi Department of Mental Health’s Helpline at 1-877-210-8513 for help finding a certified mental health provider near you.
Whatever your struggle, know that you are not alone.
Laura Walker is the staff writer for Canopy Children’s Solutions. Canopy is the most comprehensive non-profit provider of children’s behavioral health, educational and social service solutions in Mississippi. For more information about solutions offered through Canopy, please visit mycanopy.org or call 800-388-6247.