This week is Children's Mental Health Awareness Week (May 2nd through May 8th, 2010). In an effort to spread awareness, I have chosen to write on a topic a little more broad than just anxiety. This week's post will center around the question, How Do I Know if my Child has a Mental Illness? (You may want to use the icons above and share this on Twitter or Facebook to help spread awareness.)
Your child is acting different, maybe seems a bit sad or is overly emotional, with crying or outbursts over even the littlest things. Your child is having trouble making friends or maybe their friends are shying away, avoiding spending time with your child. How do you know what is normal behaviors and what may signal a mental illness or, if not a mental illness, a reason for concern?
Before I get into what the experts say, let me remind each of you that, as a parent, you know your child, you know their moods, their strengths, their weaknesses. Trust your instincts. If you are concerned there may be something wrong, gather more information, talk with other adults in your child's life and, if your efforts don't seem to help the situation, talk with your pediatrician or family doctor. Until pretty recently, experts didn't all agree on childhood mental illness. Many people believed children couldn't be depressed or have an anxiety disorder or have bipolar disorder. Many people believed you needed to be at least a teenager to be diagnosed with these. But today we understand more about mental illness, we understand that symptoms can develop early in childhood. According to the National Institutes of Mental Health "half of all lifetime cases of mental illness begin by age 14." 
Warning signs are those that are different than your child's normal behavior. Sometimes, these behaviors can follow a traumatic event or family changes, such as divorce, a new baby, a death in the family, or moving to a new home or new city. Even when you know the cause of the stress, your child may benefit from receiving extra help in resolving their feelings and dealing with stress. Some specific behaviors to look for are:
- Seems overly anxious, sad, scared or talks about feelings of hopelessness.
- Has frequent mood changes, sometimes being happy and other times feeling extremely sad.
- Difficulty falling or staying asleep or having nightmares.
- Has frequent stomach aches/headaches with no apparent cause.
- Misses school frequently or makes attempts to avoid going to school.
- Poor school performance (without cause).
- Difficulty making friends or spends time alone, even at recess.
- Shows aggressive behavior, hitting, pushing or excessively yelling at others, or is consistently angry.
- Fidgety, easily distracted, trouble paying attention.
- Does not want to participate in family activities or be with friends.
- Has emotional or tearful outbursts often.
- Develops a fear of being away from home or from parents.
- Loses appetite, doesn't want to eat foods that he or she once liked or refuses to eat.
- Participates in behaviors that hurt other children or animals or destruction of property.
- Talks about death or wanting to die.
According to Children's Mental Health Matters, if you are concerned about some of the behaviors your child is showing, you should ask yourself the following questions: