Mental Illness in Children and Teens
FROM CARRIE KUBACKI, HEALTH & WELLNESS EDUCATOR, UW-MADISON EXTENSION
Most American youth are physically and emotionally healthy; however, recent youth mental health statistics are surprising. Between 1 in 5 and 1 in 6 youth are diagnosed with a mental illness during childhood or adolescence. Mental health disorders can begin at young ages with 50% of diagnoses occurring before age 14 and 75% of diagnoses occurring before to age 24. Experts with the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) also report that rates of youth mental illness have increased over the past 10 years. During this time of crisis, it is important for parents, guardians and other adults to identify the warning signs of mental illness in youth and where they can go for help.
The most common types of mental illness in youth include substance abuse, anxiety disorders, depression and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The criteria for diagnosing specific disorders is varied and can only be done by a medical or mental health professional. However, some common warning signs to look for, especially if they are impacting daily life, are listed below:
- Changes in appetite, weight and sleep patterns
- Loss of interest in usual activities (hobbies, sports)
- Major changes in school performance
- Severe worry and anxiety that gets in the way of normal activities
- Impulsive or risk-taking behaviors
- Substance use and abuse
- Severe mood swings
- Difficulties concentrating and focusing
- Self-harm behaviors and/or suicidal thoughts and plans
If you do have concerns about a youth, the first step is to remain calm. Mental health disorders are treatable, and the earlier you seek help for a child or adolescent, the better professionals can provide treatments and support. The second step you can take, depending on the age of the child, is to talk openly with the youth about their experiences and your concerns. Though the conversation may feel uncomfortable at first, you want the youth to know that they do not need to feel ashamed, embarrassed or afraid about their emotional concerns. Third, help your youth to identify people they can talk to and other healthy coping strategies they can use to manage their emotions and behaviors. Help the youth to plan for those times when they might need to take a break or ask for help. Finally, reach out for professional help as soon as possible. Whether it is a primary health care provider or a mental health therapist, they can evaluate your youth and provide treatment options. The sooner we act, the sooner youth can realize that they are not alone and that help and support are there. For more information about child and adolescent mental health, please visit: https://nami.org.