So much of the discussion about mental health is focused around adults. There are many resources to educate adults to recognize symptoms and seek treatment for themselves, but we often overlook the younger ones in our lives. Children are as susceptible to mental illnesses, but rely on the adults around them to diagnose and deliver treatment. Therefore, it is our responsibility to educate ourselves on what mental illness looks like in others and how to take action.
We partnered with Dr. Joel V. Oberstar from Bay Area Clinical Associates (BACA) to answer some common questions about childhood mental illness:
What are some signs and symptoms that my child may have a mental illness?
Early signs and symptoms of mental illnesses in youth vary with the condition and the temperament of the child. Family and friends may notice changes in mood (such as being more sad or irritable), sleep disruption, change in appetite or lack of interest in previously enjoyable activities. In addition, many mental illnesses can manifest through physical symptoms such as headaches or upset stomachs.
How do mental illness symptoms differ in childhood vs. adulthood?
About half of all mental illnesses present prior to age 14 and about three quarters by age 24. Sometimes youth are less able to verbalize their internal experience. It is important that parents and family members are sensitive to a child’s feelings and observant of changes in activity/behavior. Children face different stressors than adults, including potential bullying behaviors at school, pressures to perform academically and the social challenges of simply growing up at this point in time.
What are some commonly overlooked or misdiagnosed mental illnesses that children are susceptible to?
Approximately one in five youth will develop a mental illness causing impairment in function before age 18. Common diagnoses in youth include anxiety, depression and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. Youth who have been exposed to trauma may also have illnesses related to those experiences. Autism spectrum disorders often present very early in childhood, though some milder forms may not become apparent until adolescence. Lastly, teens in particular may experiment with substances/chemicals and can develop substance use disorders.
What is the best way to make sure my child gets the right diagnosis?
Having the child seen by a primary care provider (e.g. pediatrician, family physician, etc.) is often the first step in the diagnostic process, particularly when that clinician has known the child for some time. Thereafter, referral to a therapist, psychologist or child and adolescent psychiatrist can provide an opportunity for a more detailed assessment.
I think my child may be mentally ill. What do I do next?
It’s important that just with any physical illness, a parent signals to their child that they will work together to see what can be done to ensure the child is as healthy and happy as they can be. Connecting the youth with a primary care provider for an initial assessment is often the first step. Subsequent assessment by a therapist/psychiatrist can lead to a more comprehensive evaluation if that seems indicated. Importantly, parents and family should not hesitate to seek an emergency assessment if there is concern about the child’s safety (e.g. suicidal statements or behaviors) or risk of harm to others.
About the author, Joel V. Oberstar, MD:
Child & Adolescent Psychiatrist and BACA’s VP of Operations
Joel is a board certified child and adolescent psychiatrist with over a decade of clinical and administrative experience. He is passionate about expanding access to high quality mental health services for youth and their families in the Bay Area.