Mental Health Issues in Young Children

No matter one’s age, people need good mental health status in order to live their most fulfilling, satisfying, and positive lives. This includes children, who must have strong mental health to live up to their full potential in childhood and later on, in their adolescence and adulthood. Childhood mental health can influence their mental health later in life, but for various reasons it can be hard to measure a child’s mental health, and even harder to predict how their mental health may be affected later by their experiences in childhood. Once a mental illness develops in a child, it becomes much harder to treat, and even though we know how to treat many of these issues, many children do not receive the care they need.[1] This is why it’s important to pay attention to children’s behavior and moods, seek treatment when necessary, and support access to certain social services, policies, and resources so that all children can receive the care they need to live mentally healthy lives.

Environmental factors can be a big influence on a child’s mental health. According to Kids Mental Health, an informational website regarding children’s mental health, “Providing children with an environment that demonstrates love, compassion, trust, and understanding will greatly impact a child so that they can build on these stepping stones to have a productive lifestyle.”[2] With a positive environment such as this, children can safely learn from their mistakes and develop confidence and self-esteem. With a strong sense of self, children are less likely to have mental health issues or develop them later on.

While having a supportive, loving childhood environment is ideal for children’s development and happiness, unfortunately many children do not have this privilege. Some children have lives filled with “angst, resentment, hatred, distrust, and constant negativity…[and] have a difficult time coping with their emotions.”[3] Negativity and trauma can bring out dormant mental health issues as children or later on in their lives. The National Institute of Mental Health says mental illnesses affecting children may include anxiety disorders, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, autism spectrum disorders, bipolar disorder, depression, eating disorders, and schizophrenia.[4] These illnesses may develop based on one’s environment, and when children do not adequately process negative and traumatic experiences and emotions from their youth. They may not be able to process because they don’t have financial access to the necessary treatment, or because the adults in their lives are not present emotionally and/or physically.

While some children develop mental health issues due to their environment, others children are simply born with them. Kids Mental Health explains, “These issues are a product of nature rather than nurture so the child may have a more difficult time dealing with his or her emotional state. Many children just naturally feel depressed or have anxiety issues. When these issues are not dealt with in the proper fashion, the children tend to have lower self-esteem and they struggle in the educational environment.”[5] If there is no identifiable cause or trigger affecting the child’s mental health, it can be harder for them to learn to cope. Additionally, children may not realize their mental state is potentially treatable, as they don’t have the life experience to teach them, and they may not be able to access treatment or help on their own, or know who to talk to about it.

It’s especially important for children to access mental health treatment when needed, as their behaviors and emotions can impact their mental health throughout the rest of their lives. NIMH suggests parents look out for the following behaviors: Problems across a variety of settings, such as at school, at home, or with peers, changes in appetite or sleep, social withdrawal, or fearful behavior toward things your child normally is not afraid of, returning to behaviors more common in younger children, such as bed-wetting, for a long time, signs of being upset, such as sadness or tearfulness, signs of self-destructive behavior, such as head-banging, or a tendency to get hurt often, and repeated thoughts of death.[6] If children exhibit these behaviors, they may have a more serious underlying mental health issue that must be addressed, and which may require extra care.

Treating children with mental health issues is important, but the first step is diagnosing the issue in order to treat it. When troubling behaviors such as anger or anxiety become long term and affect the daily wellbeing of the child, the behaviors are considered symptoms of a larger disorder. According to Kids Mental Health, “Children with mental health issues will have a difficult time acclimating to different situations. Studies have shown that these children, if left untreated by a mental health professional, will likely to grow up and repeat these same behaviors with their children. These children tend to have a lower self-worth, negative feelings, perform poorly in school, and later become involved in unhealthy lifestyle decisions. However, when these children are properly treated they can learn how to live a more promising life. They can overcome many of the issues that affect them without their consent. These children can live happy and productive lives that are filled with love, harmony, and a great mental health status.”

Kids Mental Health says that “Diagnosis usually begins with a medical doctor who takes a lengthy history and examines the child to rule out physical reasons for the difficulties. Lab tests may also be done to test for side effects of medication, for allergies, or for other conditions that could produce symptoms….If no medical reason is found for the behavior, the doctor refers the child to a psychologist or psychiatrist who treats children and adolescents…Often, the two will work together to provide a combination of counseling and medication. Other therapies, such as music or art, may be added to conventional treatments.”[7] The doctors base their diagnosis on reports of behavior from parents, caregivers, and teachers to more fully understand how the child functions in different situations. Often a child will exhibit two or more behaviors, such as anxiety and disruptive behavior. NIMH further explains: “Very young children often cannot express their thoughts and feelings, so making a diagnosis can be challenging. The signs of a mental illness in a young child may be quite different from those in an older child or adult. As parents and caregivers know, children are constantly changing and growing. Diagnosis and treatment must be viewed with these changes in mind. While some problems are short-lived and don’t need treatment, others are ongoing and may be very serious. In either case, more information will help you understand treatment choices and manage the disorder or problem most effectively.”

It is extremely important for a child to receive the necessary care, because if they don’t, the illness may continue into adulthood, creating a higher risk for issues such as substance abuse, antisocial behavior, or suicide. But with an accurate diagnosis and treatment, outlook for a healthy life as an adult is much more positive.



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