childhood mental health disorders
According to the U.S. Surgeon General, about 20% of American children suffer from a diagnosable mental illness during a given year. Further, nearly 5 million American children and adolescents suffer from a serious mental illness (one that significantly interferes with their day-to-day life).
Which Mental Illnesses Are Most Common in Children?
Children can suffer from the following mental illnesses:
Anxiety disorders: Children with anxiety disorders respond to certain things or situations with fear and dread, as well as with physical signs of anxiety (nervousness), such as a rapid heartbeat and sweating.
Disruptive behavior disorders: Children with these disorders tend to defy rules and often are disruptive in structured environments, such as school.
Children with these disorders are confused in their thinking and generally have problems understanding the world around them.
Eating disorders involve intense emotions and attitudes, as well as unusual behaviors, associated with weight and/or food.
Elimination disorders: These disorders affect behavior related to the elimination of body wastes (feces and urine).
Affective (mood) disorders: These disorders involve persistent feelings of sadness and/or rapidly changing moods.
Schizophrenia : This is a serious disorder that involves distorted perceptions and thoughts.
Tic disorders : These disorders cause a person to perform repeated, sudden, involuntary and often meaningless movements and sounds, called tics.
Some of these illnesses, such as anxiety disorders, eating disorders, mood disorders, and schizophrenia, can occur in adults as well as children. Others, such as behavior and development disorders, elimination disorders, and learning and communication disorders, begin in childhood only, although they can continue into adulthood. In rare cases, tic disorders can develop in adults. It is not unusual for a child to have more than one disorder.
What Are the Symptoms of Mental Illness in Children?
Children's symptoms vary depending on the type of mental illness, but some of the general symptoms include:
Changes in school performance, such as poor grades despite good efforts
Abuse of drugs and/or alcohol
Inability to cope with daily problems and activities
Changes in sleeping and/or eating habits
Excessive complaints of physical ailments
Defying authority, skipping school, stealing, or damaging property
Intense fear of gaining weight
Long-lasting negative moods, often accompanied by poor appetite and thoughts of death
Frequent outbursts of anger
Loss of interest in friends and activities they usually enjoy
Significant increase in time spent alone
Persistent disobedience or aggressive behavior
What Causes Mental Illness?
The exact cause of most mental illnesses is not known, but research suggests that a combination of factors, including heredity, biology, psychological trauma, and environmental stress, may be involved.
Heredity (genetics): Mental illness tends to run in families, which means the likelihood to develop a mental disorder may be passed on from parents to their children.
Biology: Some mental disorders have been linked to special chemicals in the brain called neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters help nerve cells in the brain communicate with each other. If these chemicals are out of balance or not working properly, messages may not make it through the brain correctly, leading to symptoms. In addition, defects in or injury to certain areas of the brain also have been linked to some mental illnesses.
Psychological trauma: Some mental illnesses may be triggered by psychological trauma, such as
severe emotional, physical, or sexual abuse
an important early loss, such as the loss of a parent
neglect - both emotional and physical
Environmental stress: Stressful or traumatic events can trigger a mental illness in a person with a vulnerability to a mental disorder.
As with adults, mental illnesses in children are diagnosed based on signs and symptoms that suggest a particular disorder. However, this process can be especially challenging with children. Many behaviors that are seen as symptoms of mental disorders, such as shyness, anxiety (nervousness), strange eating habits, and temper tantrums, can occur as a normal part of a child's development. Behaviors become symptoms when they occur very often, last a long time, occur at an unusual age or cause significant disruption to the child's and/or family's ability to function.
If symptoms are present, the doctor will begin an evaluation by performing a complete medical history and physical exam. Although there are no lab tests to specifically diagnose mental disorders, the doctor may use various tests, such as X-rays and blood tests, to rule out physical illness or medication side effects as the cause of the symptoms.