When we talk about mental health and wellness we generally tend to think of adults. For many decades it has seemed that children were not thought about very much when it comes to mental health. We tend to romanticize childhood as this carefree happy time when you have no troubles. But for many of us who suffer from a mood disorder or mental illness we know that this rosy scenario did not often match up with real life. Although most mental health disorders have an age of onset in adulthood, the mental health community is recognizing that it is possible for children to also develop mental health problems.
The National Federation of Families has designated May 1-7th of this year as National Children’s Mental Health Awareness Week. In honor of this awareness campaign we are going to be talking about children who may be at risk for mental illness, and some of the signs and symptoms to look for. We also hope to generate some open discussion among our members about whether or not you had experienced symptoms of depression or another mental health disorder as a child. It is my hope that by sharing our experiences, we will raise awareness so that children experiencing mental health problems today can get some help and services.
Due to my personal experiences, I consider my depression to be a life-long disorder beginning in childhood. It wasn’t something which arose out of the blue. By the time I finally got some help for my depression I was a teen. But it wasn’t until I was an adult when I was officially diagnosed with depression. I feel the same way about my anxiety disorder. As I have grown older, my anxiety is much better managed. But as a child, my anxiety issues were overwhelming. As a child who felt depressed I remember periods of time where I didn’t eat, had difficulty sleeping, and had crying spells. My anxiety was so bad at one point that I feared going outside. I developed a phobia of going to school. I remember having such horrible anxiety that I was unable to sleep at night. I was fearful that if I went to sleep I might not wake up again.
Of course all this did not occur in a vacuum. I was being raised in the inner city by a mom who had a severe mental illness. My childhood was full of traumatic experiences. And this was all the more reason why I have always wished that someone might have helped me back then. It is a long shot to say this and perhaps we will never know but maybe if I had gotten help early on, I may not have had the severity of symptoms of depression and anxiety into adulthood.
How many of you feel this way too?
This brings me back to the title of my post. It is my belief that children deserve mental wellness too. It is difficult to be a kid under the best of circumstances. You are constantly navigating physical and emotional growth. You are trying to fit in with your peers, form an identity, and learn about the world. Children are all the more vulnerable because they lack the resources and independence to get help. It always amazes me how wise some children are regarding their mental health. We have gotten questions from people as young as twelve or thirteen reaching out for help for symptoms of depression. But the problem is that people don’t believe them or their family shrugs it off as a just a stage or a way to get attention. In these cases, it is very difficult to know what to say because children and teens are at the mercy of others to get the help and services they need. It is up to us as adults to build the awareness that some children are vulnerable to mental health problems and need our help.
Who are the children at risk for developing mental illness?
• A Report of the Surgeon General identifies these risk factors for childhood mental disorders: “…prenatal damage from exposure to alcohol, illegal drugs, and tobacco; low birth weight; difficult temperament or an inherited predisposition to a mental disorder; external risk factors such as poverty, deprivation, abuse and neglect; unsatisfactory relationships; parental mental health disorder; or exposure to traumatic events.” This lengthy report discusses in detail both the psychosocial risk factors as well as biological and genetic variables.
• The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry report that the risk is strong for children to develop mental illness when one of both parents has a mental illness: “The risk is particularly strong when a parent has one or more of the following: Bipolar Disorder, an anxiety disorder, ADHD, schizophrenia, alcoholism or other drug abuse, or depression.” They conclude that:
“Unfortunately, families, professionals, and society often pay most attention to the mentally ill parent, and ignore the children in the family. Providing more attention and support to the children of a psychiatrically ill parent is an important consideration when treating the parent.” (Wish someone would have considered this when I was growing up.)
• Last year a New Zealand study was reported in the news in which researchers found that: “Childhood abuse and neglect are significantly associated with increased rates of anxiety, mood, and substance use disorders in young adulthood.” This may seem like a no brainer to most of us but what was also significant about this study is that it showed that maltreatment and not just the memory of maltreatment is associated with an increased risk of mental health problems in adulthood.
There is no one factor which has been identified in the literature which makes a child more prone to mental illness in childhood or as an adult. It seems to be a mix of genetic predisposition, biology, and environmental stressors which are responsible. Yet there are some circumstances and situations which indicate the need for a greater assessment of a child’s mental well being. We have a long way to go to ensure that children are getting the mental health services they need. This is why these awareness campaigns exist.
We would love to hear your thoughts on this. How many of you feel that your mood disorder or mental illness began in childhood? If so, did you receive any help? What do you think can be done today to help children who show symptoms of depression or other mental disorders? Speak your mind. Your thoughts and opinions are important to us.
In addition we have many articles and posts on the topic of childhood depression that we would like to share with you:
Published On: May 02, 2011