It's National Children's Mental Health Awareness Week: Know the Signs, Make a Difference

It's National Children's Mental Health Awareness Week -- and with it, the opportunity for parents, teachers, coaches and troop leaders to make a difference in a child's life by keeping on the look out for signs that a child is struggling with a mental health issue.
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There's a certain type of worry that is like no other. That's the kind where we, as parents, are worrying about our children. You can't concentrate; you can't enjoy yourself; you can't sleep. There's a pit in your stomach because in the back of your mind you know: All is not well in your world if your kids aren't OK.

It's National Children's Mental Health Awareness Week -- and with it, the opportunity for parents, teachers, coaches and troop leaders to make a difference in a child's life by keeping on the look out for signs that a child is struggling with a mental health issue. So often what is burdensome in a child's mind, what isolates them and makes them feel different from everyone else, is something that can be effectively addressed, treated and overcome.

These mental health issues include: paralyzing anxiety that keeps children from raising their hand in class, attention difficulties which leave them frustrated for getting in trouble when they don't know why, feelings of depression like nothing is worth anything, especially themselves, and even concerns that any food they put in their mouths will make them fat. We live in a time when very effective treatments are available to help children recover from these detours and regain their stride in life. However, if left untreated, mental health disorders pose serious threats to a child's growth and functioning and can rob a child of a full, healthy life.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH):

The future of our country depends on the mental health and strength of our young people. However, many children have mental health problems that interfere with normal development and functioning. In the U.S. today, one in ten children suffer from a mental disorder severe enough to cause some level of impairment.

A large-scale study by the NIMH showed that half of all lifetime cases of mental illness begin by age 14, but there may be 10 or more years between onset of symptoms and getting proper treatment.

Let's close the gap. The childhood years encompass the most critical years for development in every context: social, emotional, academic and health. With early intervention, children can get back on track and participate in a fully engaged life.

Children tend to grow into mental health problems, rather than grow out of them, so early intervention is best. Just as you might contact your child's pediatrician if a cough hasn't gone away after a few weeks, if you observe changes which either occur out of the blue or begin gradually but worsen rather than resolve over time, seeking professional consultation may be beneficial.

What should you look for? Sometimes when a child is struggling, there may be an external factor that is at play, such as being bullied at school, being rejected by a friend, family conflict or changes in the family routine, or a learning difference that has not yet been identified. So, the first step is to ask your child what feels hard to them, and then ask: If things were easier, what would be different? This can often give you a window in to your child's perceptions and what feels like a struggle to them. Red flags for specific conditions vary, but if you see changes in your child's behavior, personality, mood, sleeping habits, appetite, and/or social interaction and these changes are not fading with time, but instead are actually becoming more pronounced, go online for more information, or talk to your pediatrician. Your child may not require treatment, but there may be important steps you can take at home to decrease the chances that he or she will need it down the road.

A Maryland Public Education campaign, offers the following guidelines:

If you think there's more going on than the natural phases of growth and development, ask yourself these questions:

  • Is my child's behavior normal for his or her age?
  • Is the behavior severe enough to get in the way of daily activities?
  • Does the problem occur frequently?
  • Does the behavior last for long periods of time?

You should consult with a health professional if you see these kinds of circumstances with your child:

  • Feelings of sadness and hopelessness without good reason, and the feelings don't go away.
  • Extreme fearfulness -- unexplained fears or more fears than most children.
  • Anger that persists or occurs most of the time; overreactions.
  • Anxiety or expression of more or greater worries than most other young people.
  • Deterioration of school performance.
  • Loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities.
  • Avoidance of friends and families.
  • Discussions of suicide.
  • Hears voices that cannot be explained.
  • Changes in sleeping and eating habits.
  • Poor concentration or difficulty sitting still or listening.
  • Needs to perform the same routines repeatedly.

Remember that mental health conditions, like medical conditions such as diabetes or asthma, are nobody's fault. No one caused them, and even though genetics may play a role, what happens in life is always the interplay of many different factors. And the millions of parents who are facing these challenges should know that they are not alone, and that with proper intervention, the prognosis for children is typically very good. While we can't always protect or prevent the struggles that our children face, as parents we are able, like no one else, to support our children in getting what they need.

Worry is worst when you don't have a grasp on what's happening or why things are different, and you fear that you are losing your child. Once you learn what's wrong and understand the steps you need to take to help, the worry starts to fade because you are taking action. Many parents voice concern about the stigma of seeking help. With the millions and millions of children and adults who struggle with mental health challenges, including celebrities, athletes and other public figures, this model, which was never helpful, simply doesn't fit. However, teaching children that problems have solutions and that it's a strength to ask for help when you need it, that is a model that will benefit them for a lifetime. It's never too late. If you think your child may have a mental health problem but you've not known what to do, the resources below can provide you with information and referrals to qualified professionals. You can make all the difference in your child's life, starting now.

These organizations provide referrals to qualified professionals and other helpful resources:

  • Child Mind Institute
  • About Our Kids/NYU Child Study Center
  • Worry Wise Kids
  • Children And Adults with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (CHADD)
  • American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry
  • Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA)
  • The International Obsessive Compulsive Disorder Foundation (IOCF)
  • National Eating Disorders (NEDA)

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