Over the past number of years, we have become more and more educated on the issue of mental health – and for good reason.
Over the past number of years, we have become more and more educated on the issue of mental health – and for good reason. According to the National Mental Health Association, mental health problems affect one in every five young people at any given time.
Shockingly, two-thirds of all young people with mental health problems are not receiving the help that they need.
As parents, raising this next generation, we now have a firmer grasp on mental illness – what it is, what to look for, and how to talk to our children about it. But, what happens next?
Know the signs
Warning signs that your child might have a mental health condition include:
- Mood changes.Look for feelings of sadness or withdrawal that last at least two weeks or severe mood swings that cause problems in relationships at home or school. Intense feelings. Be aware of feelings of overwhelming fear for no reason — sometimes with a racing heart or fast breathing — or worries or fears intense enough to interfere with daily activities.
- Behaviour changes.These include drastic changes in behaviour or personality, as well as dangerous or out-of-control behaviour. Fighting frequently, using weapons and expressing a desire to badly hurt others also are warning signs.
- Difficulty concentrating. Look for signs of trouble focusing or sitting still, both of which might lead to poor performance in school.
- Unexplained weight loss. A sudden loss of appetite, frequent vomiting or use of laxatives might indicate an eating disorder.
- Physical symptoms. Compared with adults, children with a mental health condition might develop headaches and stomach-aches rather than sadness or anxiety.
- Physical harm.Sometimes a mental health condition leads to self-injury, also called self-harm. This is the act of deliberately harming your own body, such as cutting or burning yourself. Children with a mental health condition also might develop suicidal thoughts or attempt suicide.
- Substance abuse.Some kids use drugs or alcohol to try to cope with their feelings.
If you're concerned about your child's mental health, consult your child's GP. Describe the signs that you have noticed and any behaviour that concerns you. You should also think about talking to your child's teacher, close friends or family, or other caregivers to see if they've noticed any changes in your child's behaviour. Share this information with your child's doctor, too.
Understand the diagnosis
The first step in helping a child living with mental illness is ensuring they’re properly diagnosed by a mental health professional. However, it’s not always that simple. One of the most difficult parts of discussing mental health is the range of illnesses, as well as the levels of severity each, can entail. Mental illness can be defined as “a health condition that changes a person’s thinking, feelings, or behaviour (or all three) and that causes the person distress and difficulty in functioning.”
This can include depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety disorder, schizophrenia. While each illness is different, the symptoms can often be similar. Consulting with a mental health professional can help you learn about your child’s specific diagnosis, the potential symptoms, and how those symptoms can manifest differently in individuals.
How is mental illness in children treated?
Common treatment options for children who have mental health conditions include:
Psychotherapy. Psychotherapy, also known as play therapy or behaviour therapy, is a way to address mental health concerns by talking with a psychologist or other mental health provider. During psychotherapy, a child might learn about his or her condition, moods, feelings, thoughts and their behaviour. Psychotherapy can help a child learn how to respond to challenging situations with healthy coping skills.
Medication.Your child's doctor or mental health provider might recommend that your child take certain medications — such as stimulants, antidepressants, anti-anxiety medications, antipsychotics or mood stabilizers — to treat his or her mental health condition.
Some children benefit from a combination of approaches. Consult your child's doctor or mental health provider to determine what might work best for your child, including the risks or benefits of specific medications.
Always be vigilant in knowing every side effect of these medications and weighing up the pros and cons for your child specifically.
How can I help my child cope with a mental illness?
Your child needs your support now more than ever. Before a child is diagnosed with a mental health condition, parents and children commonly experience feelings of helplessness, anger and frustration. Ask your child's mental health provider for advice on how to change the way you interact with your child, as well as how to handle difficult behaviour.
Seek ways to relax and have fun with your child. Praise his or her strengths and abilities. Explore new stress management techniques, which might help you understand how to calmly respond to stressful situations.
Consider seeking family counselling or the help of support groups, too. It's important for you and your loved ones to understand your child's illness and his or her feelings, as well as what all of you can do to help your child.
If you're concerned about your child's mental health, seek advice. Don't avoid getting help for your child out of shame or fear. With appropriate support, you can find out whether your child has a mental health condition and explore treatment options to help him or her thrive.
Laura Doyle, Mum of 4. Kyle 9, Noa Belle 4, Briar 2 and Milla 12 months. Breastfeeder, co-sleeper, coffee drinker. Staying positive and inspired by the chaos of it all. Follow her on Instagram.