One area that is often neglected is a child’s mental health. Mental health disorders such as anxiety, depression and even phobias occur more often and earlier than you might think. According to an article in the Archives of General Psychiatry, the average age of onset for a disorder such as anxiety is around 11 years old.
“Half of all chronic mental illness begins by age 14; three-quarters by age 24. Despite effective treatment, there are long delays — sometimes decades — between the first appearance of symptoms and when people get help,” said Hilary Harrison, the health education coordinator for mental health at Samaritan Health Services.
An article in American Family Physician recognizes that diagnosing young children can be difficult because of limited language abilities, so input from multiple sources such as a parent, teacher and another child is helpful. Recognizing symptoms early is important to help take preventive steps.
According to a study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, adolescents who were screened and found to have depressive symptoms could successfully prevent a depressive episode with appropriate early intervention.
“Unfortunately there are just not very many of us who are taught how to help someone who is having a mental health crisis or concern,” Harrison said. “If you think about how many people are trained in CPR, less than 3 percent of the population will have an event in their lifetime that will require CPR. A mental health episode is much more likely but also much less recognizable.”
According to Harrison, parents should look for warning signs such as isolation, changes in peer groups, and major changes in appetite or sleep habits that occur for more than two weeks. Times of crisis, such as death or divorce, can also trigger a mental health episode.
Samaritan offers a course on youth mental health first aid that can help parents, teachers, youth group leaders or others who interact with children identify and react appropriately to a mental health disorder.
“Whether it’s a friend of your child’s who posts something on Facebook about feeling suicidal or your own child who seems anxious and isolated, you want to know how to listen and respond to a young person and meet them where they’re at emotionally,” said Harrison.
Harrison acknowledges that there remains a social stigma around mental health issues.
“Sometimes people think you just need to buck up and get over it,” she said. “But we wouldn’t deny a child glasses who couldn’t see the board in the classroom, and mental health assistance is no different.”
Many schools have programs that connect kids with services once they are identified as needing help. Getting help might mean professional services, like your family doctor, a psychiatrist or a therapist. It might also include self-help, like exercise, relaxation or whatever works to decrease distress.
“There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to mental health treatment,” said Harrison. “But knowing what your resources are and how to access them are what’s important.”