Mental Illness in Children Explained

Mental disorders in children are quite common and sometimes severe. About one-fourth of children and teens experience some type of mental disorder in any given year, one-third at some time in their lives. The most common kind of mental disorders are anxiety disorders, like overanxious disorder of childhood or separation anxiety disorder.

Other common types of mental illnesses in childhood include behavior disorders like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), mood disorders like depression, and substance-use disorders like alcohol use disorders.

Statistics indicate how relatively common these disorders occur. ADHD affects 8%-10% of school-aged children.

Depression occurs at a rate of about 2% during childhood and from 4%-7% during adolescence, affecting up to about 20% of adolescents by the time they reach adulthood.

In teens more frequently than in younger children, addictions, bipolar disorder, and less often early onset schizophrenia may manifest.

Although not as commonly occurring, developmental disabilities like autism spectrum disorders can have a significant lifelong impact on the life of the child and his or her family.

Autism spectrum disorder is a developmental disorder that is characterized by impaired development in communication, social interaction, and behavior.

Statistics about autism include that it afflicts one out of every 88 children, a 78% increase in the past 10 years.

Identifying the Signs

Recognizing symptoms is key! Family awareness and early identification are often the first steps to effective treatment for children and youth with mental health disorders.

It’s easy to recognize when a child has a fever. But a child’s mental health is different.

It can be difficult to distinguish between ‘normal’ problems that all children and adolescents experience from time to time, and behaviour that may be indicative of a mental health disorder.

The following characteristics and behaviours may be signs of an underlying mental health disorder:

  • getting significantly lower marks in school
  • avoiding friends and family
  • having frequent outbursts of anger and rage
  • losing his or her appetite
  • having difficulty sleeping
  • rebelling against authority
  • drinking a lot and/or using drugs
  • not doing the things he or she used to enjoy
  • worrying constantly
  • experiencing frequent mood swings
  • not concerned with his or her appearance
  • obsessed with his or her weight
  • lacking energy or motivation
  • hitting or bullying other children
  • attempting to injure him or her self

Children and youth with the most serious mental health disorders (e.g., severe psychosis or schizophrenia) may exhibit:

  • distorted thinking
  • excessive anxiety
  • odd body movements
  • abnormal mood swings
  • acting overly suspicious of others
  • seeing or hearing things that others don’t see or hear

What are causes and risk factors for mental illness in children?

As is the case with most mental-health disorders at any age, such disorders in children do not have one single definitive cause.

Rather, people with these illnesses tend to have a number of biological, psychological, and environmental risk factors that contribute to their development.

Biologically, mental illnesses tend to be associated with abnormal levels of neurotransmitters, like serotonin or dopamine in the brain, a decrease in the size of some areas of the brain, as well as increased activity in other areas of the brain.

Girls are more likely to be diagnosed with mood disorders like depression and anxiety compared to boys, while disorders like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and autism spectrum disorders are more often assigned to boys.

Gender differences in mental illness are thought to be the result of, among other things, a combination of biological differences based on gender, as well as the differences in how girls are encouraged to interpret their environment and respond to it compared to boys.

There is thought to be at least a partially genetic contribution to the fact that children and adolescents with a mentally ill parent are up to four times more likely to develop such an illness themselves.

Teens who develop a mental disorder are also more prone to having had other biological challenges, like low birth weight, trouble sleeping, and having a mother younger than 18 years old at the time of their birth.

What are causes and risk factors for mental illness in children?

As is the case with most mental-health disorders at any age, such disorders in children do not have one single definitive cause.

Rather, people with these illnesses tend to have a number of biological, psychological, and environmental risk factors that contribute to their development.

Biologically, mental illnesses tend to be associated with abnormal levels of neurotransmitters, like serotonin or dopamine in the brain, a decrease in the size of some areas of the brain, as well as increased activity in other areas of the brain.

Girls are more likely to be diagnosed with mood disorders like depression and anxiety compared to boys, while disorders like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and autism spectrum disorders are more often assigned to boys.

Gender differences in mental illness are thought to be the result of, among other things, a combination of biological differences based on gender, as well as the differences in how girls are encouraged to interpret their environment and respond to it compared to boys.

There is thought to be at least a partially genetic contribution to the fact that children and adolescents with a mentally ill parent are up to four times more likely to develop such an illness themselves.

Teens who develop a mental disorder are also more prone to having had other biological challenges, like low birth weight, trouble sleeping, and having a mother younger than 18 years old at the time of their birth.

What is the treatment for mental illness in children?

There are a variety of treatments available for managing mental illnesses in children, including several effective medications, educational or occupational interventions, as well as specific forms of psychotherapy.

In terms of medications, medications from specific drug classes are used to treat childhood mental illness.

Examples include the stimulant class for treating ADHD, serotonergic medications for treating depression and anxiety, and neuroleptic medications for management of severe mood swings, anxiety, aggression, or in the treatment of childhood schizophrenia.

For individuals who may be wondering how to manage the symptoms of a childhood mental illness using treatment without prescribed medications, psychotherapies are often used.

While interventions like limiting exposure to food additives, preservatives, and processed sugars have been found to be helpful for some people with an illness like ADHD, the research evidence is still considered to be too limited for many physicians to recommend nutritional interventions.

Also, placing such restrictions on the eating habits of a child or teenager can prove to be difficult at best, nearly impossible at worst.

What is the prognosis of mental illness in children?

Children and youth with mental-health problems are at risk for having lower educational achievement, greater involvement with the criminal justice system, and fewer stable and longer-term placements in the child welfare system than their peers.

Children and youth with mental-health problems are more likely to experience problems at school, be absent, or be suspended or expelled than are children with other disabilities.

Youth in high school with mental-health problems are more likely to fail or drop out of school. When treated, children and youth with mental-health problems fare better at home, in schools, and in their communities.

Children with more anxiety disorders are at higher risk for anxiety, depression, and substance-abuse disorders in adulthood.

They tend to achieve less academically and are more likely to engage in early parenthood and suicidal behaviors.

Can mental illness in children be prevented?

Attempts at prevention of childhood mental illness tends to address both specific and nonspecific risk factors, strengthen protective factors, and use an approach that is appropriate for the child’s age and developmental level.

Such programs often use cognitive behavioral and/or interpersonal approaches, as well as family based prevention strategies because research shows that these interventions tend to be the most helpful.

The inverse of most risk factors, protective factors for childhood mental illness include having the involvement of supportive adults, strong family and peer relationships, healthy coping skills, and emotional regulation.

Children and adolescents of a mentally ill parent tend to be more resilient when the child is more able to focus on age-appropriate tasks in their lives and on their relationships, as well as being able to understand their parents’ illness.

For mentally ill parents, their children seem to be more protected from developing a psychiatric illness when the parent is able to demonstrate a commitment to parenting and to healthy relationships.

What research is being done on mental illness in children?

Due to the historical lack of understanding of this topic, research on mental illness in children is occurring on a number of fronts.

In an effort to better understand how often childhood mental illnesses occur, a great deal of research is focused on achieving that goal.

Understanding more about the protective factors against mental illness is being explored. Ways to improve the access that children have to treatment is another topic of considerable research interest.

Source & More Info: kidsmentalhealth.ca and

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