Mental Health in Children & Teens
Developmentally, childhood and adolescence is such a critical time of development. During these years, young people are growing into who they are created to be. This growth comes with normal “growing pains” and adjustment, yet for some youth there is much more going on that affects their overall wellbeing and functioning. In fact, 50 percent of lifetime cases of mental illness begin by age 14.
Mental illness, just like a medical disease, has tangible effects that inhibit someone’s ability to function and enjoy life. Among young people ages 13-18, one in five have or will have a serious mental illness. Specifically, 11 percent of youth have a mood disorder, and 10 percent of youth have a behavioral or conduct disorder. 8% of youth are affected with an anxiety disorder.
Children and Mental Illness in Mississippi
In keeping with the national trend of 1 in 5 youth being affected by mental illness, a Mississippi report from 2015 highlighted that mental health significantly affects 33,000 Mississippian youth. In 2013-14, 10.6 percent of Mississippi’s adolescents aged 12-17 experienced a major depressive episode, which is similar to the national percentage of 11 percent adolescents who experienced a major depressive episode that year.
Substance use is a common problem among adolescents that is highly linked with possible mental-health issues. In 2013-14, 9.4 percent of Mississippi’s adolescents used illicit drugs; this is compared to a 9.1 percent national statistic.
Common mental-health concerns among kids and teens:
Anxiety disorders: Fear and worry disrupts the day to day life and relationships of youth with anxiety disorders.
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD): Leads to difficulty functioning with focus and attention, or hyperactivity and impulsivity, or both.
Conduct disorder: Extreme aggression and destruction towards other people, property or animals.
Depression: A mood disorder that typically emerges in adolescence. Depression goes beyond feeling sad to an extremely emotionally low emotional place.
Psychosis: A condition that involves losing touch with reality.
Bipolar disorder: A mood disorder that typically emerges in adolescents. It causes a young person’s mood to go back and forth between high moods called mania and low moods, called depression.
Eating disorders: Involves distorted body image and dangerous behaviors involving depriving the body of nutrition and/or bulimia.
Schizophrenia: Makes it hard for people to connect with reality and think and speak in an organized way. Often it emerges in adolescents and young adulthood.
Substance abuse: In keeping with adolescent development, adolescents are less likely to think about consequences. That coupled with being in emotional pain can make substances especially appealing as a way to numb the pain.
Suicide: When dealing with depression, sometimes teens and even children are in so much pain that they begin to have suicidal thoughts. This should always be taken seriously, so that they can get the help that they need to stabilize and see hope again.
Signs of mental health issues in young children:
Being frequently fearful or worried
Having tantrums frequently or being intensely irritable most of the time
Complaining often of stomachaches or headaches with no known medical cause
Being constantly in motion and unable to sit still
Having disrupted sleep, in that they sleep too much or too little, having nightmares often, or having trouble staying awake during the day
Struggling socially in terms of having difficulty making friends
Struggling academically in terms of grades; the opposite can also be concerning when a child only accepts perfection
Displaying obsessive and compulsive behaviors
Acting with extreme defiance
Showing little or no empathy in terms of harming property or others including animals
Signs of mental health issues in older children and teens:
Having low energy or periods of highly elevated energy
Feeling significant sadness that sets in and does not lift
No longer having the energy for things that they used to enjoy
Sleeping too much or too little (beyond normal teenage sleep adjustment)
Withdrawing socially by spending more and more time alone
Eating significantly less or significantly more than usual
Obsessing about gaining weight and restricting food, or exercising excessively, or throwing up or using laxatives
Engaging in self-harm in the form of cutting or burning self
Using substances such as alcohol and drugs
Engaging in risky, out-of-control behaviors in general and sexually
Having severe mood swings that affect their relationships
Having drastic changes in behavior in which your child just does not seem like himself or herself
Having intense worries or fears that affect day-to-day life and functioning
No longer caring about grades and academic achievement, or obsessing over being perfect in a rigid, controlling way
Having expressed thoughts of suicide
Childhood Trauma and Mental Health
Trauma is commonly associated with mental illness in children and adolescents, in that trauma wreaks havoc on the lives of those affected. Childhood trauma is especially impactful, because of the vulnerability of children themselves and the critical developmental life stage they are in when trauma occurs.
Trauma during childhood is associated with a range of mental-health issues. Data from the Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) study found that the effects of trauma in childhood often carry into adulthood. Adverse childhood experiences include such events such as domestic violence in the home; physical, sexual and emotional abuse; neglect; death of a parent; a parent spending time in jail; and growing up with a family member suffering from mental illness or substance abuse.
Having a trauma history does not mean a child will automatically suffer from mental illness their entire life, as healing and resilience are always possible. But it does mean that a child is vulnerable and needs intentional support to help alleviate the effects of trauma and mental illness.
Mental Health Concerns in Schools
With 1 in 5 children and adolescents suffering from mental illness, mental illness is a real issue affecting real youth every day in our schools. This means that in a classroom of 25, there may be five students suffering from depression, anxiety, ADHD, and other mental-health issues.
For educators, this can be overwhelming, as they care for their students and want to help, and yet they are supposed to be teaching. For the youth affected by mental illness, it can be difficult to focus and attend to education and learning when you are in a place of survival yourself — reeling from trauma, and suffering from layers of mental illness affecting your everyday functioning.
Many schools are seeking to become more aware of mental illness and more attuned to how to support the social and emotional needs of youth in the school setting. Even with schools taking steps to address mental health and serve the whole child, youth suffering from mental illness will often need additional therapeutic support beyond what the school may possibly be able to provide.
Mental Health and Bullying
Bullying is unwanted, repeated, aggressive behavior that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. Bullying is closely connected to mental illness and can have far reaching effects well into adulthood. Bullying can take place in person or through technology, which is known as cyberbullying. While some signs of bullying are obvious, others are more subtle. Possible signs of bullying include:
Loss or destroyed items, clothing or jewelry
Frequent stomach and headaches, a general sick feeling, or even faking sickness to avoid school or certain settings
Changes in appetite and eating habits
Difficulty sleeping or frequent nightmares
Declining grades and general loss of interest in school
Avoidance of school or certain social situations
Decreased self-esteem and feelings of helplessness
Self-destructive behaviors such as self-harm or running away from home
Experiencing hopelessness and talking of suicide
Treating Mental Illness in Children and Teens
Early intervention and treatment play a significant role in lessening the effects of mental illness on children and teens. When youth are provided with therapeutic support, they are in a position to learn positive coping skills that can help serve them for the rest of their life.
Early intervention and treatment can help mitigate and even prevent the development of chronic, lifelong mental illness. With the right interventions and supports, healing can take place and resilience can be fostered in our youth. This resilient spirit is something that our youth can carry forward with them for the rest of their lives.
For further reading about children and adolescents and their developing brains:
Explore Self-Assessment Guides from Right Track Medical Group
Resources on Mental Health in Children and Teens
Behavioral Health Barometer, Mississippi, 2015: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration: https://www.samhsa.gov/data/sites/default/files/2015_Mississippi_BHBarometer.pdf
This report was prepared for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). The report focuses on Mississippi and examines youth substance abuse and youth mental health and treatment.
Bullying: StopBullying.Gov: https://www.stopbullying.gov
An official website of the United States government, StopBullying.gov provides information and resources dedicated to bullying prevention.
CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study: https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/childabuseandneglect/acestudy/about.html
The CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study is one of the largest investigations of childhood abuse and neglect and household challenges and later-life health and well-being. A major finding of the study is that early adversity has lasting impacts on mental and physical well being.
Child and Adolescent Mental Health: National Institute of Mental Health: https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/child-and-adolescent-mental-health/index.shtml
This guide on Child and Adolescent Mental Health provides information on warning signs; the latest news covering child and adolescent mental health and resources and videos.
Children and teens mental health facts: NAMI: https://www.nami.org/NAMI/media/NAMI-Media/Infographics/Children-MH-Facts-NAMI.pdf
This fact sheet by the National Alliance on Mental Illness provides information on mental health in children and teens including statistics on prevalence, suicide rates, the impact of a mental illness on children, warning signs and 4 things that parents can do.
Helping Children and Youth Who Have Traumatic Experiences: https://www.samhsa.gov/sites/default/files/brief_report_natl_childrens_mh_awareness_day.pdf
This guide provided by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration includes information and studies related to traumatic experiences in the lives of children.
Mental Health In Schools: A Hidden Crisis Affecting Millions Of Students: NPR: https://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2016/08/31/464727159/mental-health-in-schools-a-hidden-crisis-affecting-millions-of-students
This articles explains the prevalence of mental illness in the school system, describing it as a “silent epidemic.”
Mental Illnesses in Children and Youth: Here to Help (Canada): https://www.heretohelp.bc.ca/factsheet/mental-illnesses-in-children-and-youth
This guide provided by a mental health organization based in Canada, contains information on mental illnesses in children and youth including symptoms and treatment options.
Mississippi Department of Mental Health Fact Sheet 2017: http://www.dmh.ms.gov/wp-content/uploads/2017/09/Fast-Facts-FY17-Final.pdf
This fact sheet provided by the Mississippi Department of Mental Health includes information on the prevalence of need for mental health resources in the state of Mississippi and current facts and figures on what resources are available.
By Elizabeth Burton, LPC, EdS, NCC for Right Track Medical Group
This article is provided for information only and is not a substitute for diagnosis or treatment by a mental-health professional.