Childhood Mental Health

By Dr. Bailey Alford

Rearview shot of a young woman and her daughter having a conversation on the porch

When you think about what makes your children healthy, their physical health likely comes to mind. What most people may not think about is the importance of a child’s mental health and its contribution to the overall health and well-being of a child.

Much like adults, children and adolescents also suffer from mental health conditions like depression, anxiety, and other behavioral disorders. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, 1 in 10 children in the US suffer from mental illness. Suicide attempts in children and teens are at an all-time high.

Signs and Symptoms

What are the signs of mental illness in children? How do you find help for your child?

  • Social withdrawal: Children suffering from depression or anxiety will often disengage from social and family functions. Adolescence is a time of emotional lability with ups and downs in mood, however depression is suspected when the symptoms occur for an extended period of time and interfere with day to day life. Anxiety that keeps your child from wanting to attend school or hang out with friends should be a red flag.
  • Changes in personality: If your previously happy, outgoing, rule-following child is exhibiting more anger, aggression, and risk-taking behaviors, he or she may be suffering from depression. The symptoms can range from appearing withdrawn and sad, to being overly emotional with frequent crying.
  • Poor school performance: Children and adolescents with depression will likely show a decline in school performance with poor grades, decreased attention, and failure to turn in assignments. Teachers often observe these changes in behaviors and will often bring their concerns to the parent’s attention. It’s always a good idea to check in with your child’s teacher if you are seeing concerning behaviors at home to see if similar behavior is being noted at school where they spend a majority of their time.
  • Decreased appetite: Children who are depressed not only lose interest in friends, family, and school, but also usually in eating as well.
  • Changes in sleep patterns: Depression can lead to the inability to fall or stay asleep with children having restless sleep and fatigue during the day. The opposite end of the spectrum is also true, and some children with depression with have an increase in fatigue and sleepiness with frequent napping.

Identifying Children at Risk

Mental illness can happen to any child, of any age, from any background, at any time. There are situations however that can lead to an increased risk for emotional and behavioral concerns.

  • Family stressors like a recent move, death, or birth of a sibling can lead to behavioral changes
  • Witnessing scary events or being separated from a loved one
  • Children who have experienced physical or sexual abuse or who are in foster care
  • Family history of mental illness also puts children at an increased risk

Seeking help

If you are concerned your child may be suffering from mental illness, talking to their pediatrician is a great first step. There is a lot of stigma surrounding mental illness in society today, and this can include parents being embarrassed, in denial,  and/or hesitant to seek help for their children. Your child’s pediatrician can help to validate your concerns and point you in the right direction towards a specialist that can help your child.

Treatment is usually aimed at some form of therapy/counseling and may include medications. Psychiatrists, psychologists, developmental pediatricians, licensed counselors, social workers, and school psychologists are all great resources and integral parts of the treatment team.

Be observant, engage in your child’s daily life, stay in frequent communication with your child’s teacher, and keep an open dialogue with your child’s pediatrician so you are in the best position to monitor your child’s mental health. Your child’s life may depend on it.

Next month’s column will provide tips on childproofing your home for any age.