Guide To Understanding Mental Health In Children

Guide To Understanding Mental Health In Children

Bell Let’s Talk Day will be held on January 29th of this year.  It is a program designed to break the silence around mental illness and support these individuals across Canada.  The initiative has led to an open discussion about mental illnesses, while offering new ideas and solutions for combating it nationwide. Institutions and organizations have as a result received funding for research and access to help. Bell Let’s Talk raises awareness surrounding these 4 pillars: (1) Anti-stigma (2) Care & Access (3) Research (4) Workplace health 
In light of Bell Let’s Talk Day, today’s blog post focuses on raising awareness around mental health disorders, specifically in children and teens. According to the Canadian Institute for Health Information, 10-20% of Candian children and youth may develop a mental health disorder in their lifetime. In Ontario, approximately 1 in 5 children and youth suffer from a mental health condition. 
Most interestingly, 70% of all mental health issues will begin in childhood. This makes it of utmost importance to be able to identify mental health disorders and intervene from an early age so as to improve future health outcomes in children. Early childhood experiences can shape the developing brain and lay the foundations of optimal mental health. Children can show clear characteristics of the same mental health disorders in adults like, anxiety disorders, attention deficit disorder, depression, conduct disorder and neurodevelopment disabilities. However, children express these emotional changes differently.  

Signs Of Mental Health Disorders In Children

  • Lower grades at school
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Constant worrying
  • Frequent mood swings
  • Outbursts of anger
  • Changes in sleep
  • Changes in eating habits
  • Hyperactivity 
  • Persistent aggression
  • Depression, sadness 
  • Physical harm
  • Substance abuse
These signs/symptoms can be part of normal childhood, but the issue arises when the above changes are intense and persistent over long periods of time. 

Common Mental Health Disorders In Children and Youth

  • Anxiety Disorders - This involves constant feelings of uneasiness, worry and fear. Bouts of worrying are normal, but when it affects their ability to function in everyday life an anxiety disorder may be present. There are various types of anxiety disorders including:
    • Obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD)
    • Post-traumatic disorder (PTSD)
    • Social phobia 
    • Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD)
  • Mood Disorders - Persistent feelings of sadness and/or extreme mood swings such as in:
    • Depression
    • Bipolar
  • Attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD/ADD) - Can be displayed as either:
    • Difficulty paying attention 
    • Hyperactivity/Impulsivity
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) - Serious developmental disorder that appears in early childhood that affects communication and social interaction with others
  • Eating disorders - Preoccupation with food and weight changes such as in:
    • Anorexia Nervosa
    • Bulimia Nervosa
    • Binge Eating Disorder
It can be quite challenging deciphering between normal childhood experiences from more serious mental health disorders like the ones mentioned above. Along with the challenge in first recognizing mental health disorders in children, there is also the piece of stigma & mental health which may prevent parents from seeking help.  Parents easily understand the urgency of physical ailments in children, but it also needs to be understood that mental ailments require just as much urgency and attention. Consequences of not addressing mental health challenges in children can lead to more serious health problems in the future. 


How Is Mental Illness Diagnosed In Children?

Mental health conditions are diagnosed and treated based on signs and symptoms like the ones mentioned above. Usually your healthcare provider will be able to see if your child has a serious mental health condition by looking at the criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Your doctor may also recommend a referral to a psychiatrist, psychologist or social worker. 


How Is Mental Illness Treated In Children?

  • Psychotherapy - Also known as talk therapy. A child will learn about their mental health condition through understanding their emotions, feelings, reactions, thoughts and behaviours. This method can help to change the way they respond to certain situations and provide tools on how to cope with life stressors
  • Medication - These often include antidepressants, anti-anxiety medications and stimulants. Types of medications depend on the diagnosis. 
  • Complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) - CAM is popular among children with mental health issues. The most frequently used modalities include herbal remedies (St. John’s wort, Ginkgo biloba and Lemon Balm), mind-body therapies (yoga, tai chi, meditation) and chiropractic care. CAM treatments are natural and holistic in their approach. It is important to be careful with interactions that may exist between medications and supplements (drug-herb interactions) when it comes to mental health treatments.
    • Watch this video to help guide you when using both medications and supplements at the same time. Here are some reasons to use CAM therapies for children with mental health issues:
      • CAM used in conjunction with medical treatment can help improve quality of life
      • It focuses on the whole person
      • Natural treatment with limited side effects


What Can You Do As A Parent?

As a parent, you play a vital role in your child’s overall health. You are able to promote sound development of mental health through your actions, behaviours and words that are expressed at home on an everyday basis. Here are some tips for you to lay that foundation: 

First Steps:

  • Observe changes in behaviors from the ones above and create a list over the course of a couple weeks
  • Speak to your child’s doctor and discuss the behaviours that are concerning you
  • Speak to your child’s teacher, close family and friends to see if they have also noticed any changes in behaviour 

Second Steps:

  • Listen and respect their feelings. Try your best not to interrupt them when they talk and really practice active listening 
  • Encourage them to talk about how they feel so as to build strong and open relationships
  • Keep communication constant, open and honest
  • Find ways to relax and have fun with your child
  • Provide positive reinforcement to their strengths and encouragement with their weaknesses 
  • Find space in the day to spend some quality time with your child, whether it be open conversation while all sitting together at the dinner table or going for daily walks 
  • Show acceptance 
  • Provide time for physical activity 
  • Be careful addressing serious family issues around your child. It can be very easy for them to pick up on negativity and worry about these things. The emotional well-being of children can be directly correlated to the functioning of their caregivers. 
Most mental health issues of adulthood start at a young age. It is so important to recognize the signs and address them from an early age to prevent more serious problems in the future. The earlier treatment is started, the more effective it can be. If you feel that your child may have a mental health condition be sure to talk to your doctor and seek support. Early interventions can make a difference in the future of your child. 
Remember, today, January 29th, Bell will donate towards mental health initiatives in Canada by contributing 5 cents for every applicable text and call made by Bell Canada users. The company will also donate 5 cents for each tweet using #BellLetsTalk, each view of the Bell Let’s Talk Day video on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook or Snapchat and each use of Bell Let’s talk Facebook frame or Snapchat filter. So let's take this opportunity and help end the stigma surrounding mental health.  
**Disclaimer: The advice in this article is for informational purposes only. It does not replace the care of a Naturopathic physician.