Each year, National Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day seeks to raise awareness of the importance of children’s mental health and show that positive mental health is an essential part of a child’s healthy development.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), mental disorders among children are described as being serious changes in the way children typically learn, behave, or handle their emotions, to the extent that it causes them distress and problems getting through the day. Some of the more common mental disorders diagnosed in childhood include attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), anxiety, depression, and behavior disorders.
Childhood mental health disorders are not rare. Of children in the United States aged 3-17 years old:
- 9.4% have diagnosed ADHD
- 7.4% have a diagnosed behavior problem
- 7.1% have diagnosed anxiety
- 3.2% have diagnosed depression
Some of these conditions commonly occur together such as anxiety and behavior problems, and anxiety, and depression. Their prevalence also varies by age, gender, and socioeconomic status.
- While behavior problems are more common in younger children, anxiety, and depression are more common with increased age.
- At younger ages (2-8 years), boys are more likely than girls to be affected by a mental, behavioral, or developmental disorder.
- Among children living below 100% of the federal poverty level, more than 1 in 5 have a mental, behavioral, or developmental disorder.
ADHD occurs when a child has persistent difficulty focusing and behaving, to the point that it causes difficulty at school, home, or with friends. These children may struggle with paying attention, controlling impulsive behaviors such as acting out or being overly active.
Anxiety is when a child is unable to outgrow typical childhood fears and worries, or when their fears and worries interfere with school, home, or play activities. Anxiety may make children irritable or angry. It may also cause them to have difficulty sleeping or other physical symptoms like fatigue, headaches, or stomachaches. A child may keep their worries to themselves, causing symptoms to be missed.
Some specific anxieties of childhood may include:
- Separation anxiety- fear of separation from parents
- Phobias- extreme fear of certain things
- Social anxiety- fear of places where there are other people
- General anxiety- extreme worrying about the future or bad things happening
- Panic disorder- episodes of sudden, unexpected, intense fear with symptoms like heart pounding, difficulty breathing or feeling dizzy, shaky, or sweaty
Depression is when a child is persistently sad or uninterested in things they used to enjoy. They may struggle with feeling helpless or hopeless in situations they are able to change. Children struggling with depression may not talk about their helpless and hopeless thoughts, and they may not appear sad. Depression may cause a child to make trouble or act unmotivated.
Extreme depression can lead a child to think about or plan suicide. For youth aged 10-24 years, suicide is the second most common cause of death.
Oppositional defiance disorder (ODD) occurs when a child has an ongoing pattern of uncooperative, defiant, and hostile behavior toward authority. They act out persistently, to the point that it causes serious problems at home, in school, or with peers.
Conduct disorder (CD) occurs when a child has great difficulty following rules, respecting the rights of others, showing empathy, and behaving in a socially acceptable way. These children show an ongoing pattern of aggression toward others and serious violations of rules and social norms.
It is unknown why some children develop mental health disorders. Many factors play a role such as biology and temperament. Children are also more likely to develop them when they experience trauma or stress, are maltreated, are being bullied or rejected by peers, or have parents with mental health disorders.
Treatment for childhood mental health disorders begins with talking to a healthcare provider about getting an evaluation. This helps ensure a child is diagnosed correctly and can get the appropriate treatment. Starting early treatment is important. Treatments are specific to the child and the diagnosis and may or may not include medication. Therapies such as behavior therapy with a mental health professional are often first-line treatments. These are most effective when a child’s parents or family are also involved in them.
Some ways to help a child struggling with a mental health disorder include:
- Promote good health with a healthy diet, sleep, exercise, and limited screen time
- Encourage positive connections with other people and allow for one-on-one time with parents
- Praise good behavior and offer encouragement for seeking care
- Provide safety and security- talk about bullying, look for grief or loss issues, and ensure guns, knives, long ropes/cables, alcohol, and medicines are locked up
- Educate others about the disorder and that the child is not making symptoms up
- Help the child learn thinking and coping skills- find physical and/or creative activities, focus on their strengths, help them look at problems in different ways, or break them down into smaller steps
- Make a safety play- attend therapy, take meds as directed, develop a list of people to call when things get worse
- Watch for possible signs of suicidal thoughts such as talking about it in-person or on the internet, giving away belongings, increased thoughts about death, or substance abuse
- Know the National Suicide Prevention hotline is available to help: 1-800-273-8255 or www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org