According to the American Psychological Association (APA), mental health—an essential part of children’s overall health—has a complex interactive relationship with their physical health and their ability to succeed in school, at work, and in society. Both physical and children mental health affects how we think, feel, and act on the inside and outside. Mental health is important throughout childhood—from prenatal considerations through transitions to adulthood.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) stated that being mentally healthy during childhood means reaching developmental and emotional milestones and learning healthy social skills and how to cope when there are problems. Mentally healthy children have a positive quality of life and can function well at home, in school, and in their communities. Mental disorders among children are described as serious changes in the way children typically learn, behave, or handle their emotions, which cause distress and problems getting through the day. Many children occasionally experience fears and worries or display disruptive behaviors. If symptoms are serious and persistent and interfere with school, home, or play activities, the child may be diagnosed with a mental disorder. Children’s mental health is not simply the absence of a mental disorder. Children who don’t have a mental disorder might differ in how well they are doing, and children who have the same diagnosed mental disorder might differ in their strengths and weaknesses in how they are developing and coping, and in their quality of life. Mental health as a continuum and the identification of specific mental disorders are both ways to understand how well children are doing. Among the more common mental disorders that can be diagnosed in childhood are attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), anxiety (fears or worries), and behavior disorders. Other childhood disorders and concerns that affect how children learn, behave, or handle their emotions can include learning and developmental disabilities, autism, and risk factors like substance use and self-harm.
For instance, an overweight young boy who is teased about his weight may withdraw socially and become depressed, and may be reluctant to play with others or exercise, which further contributes to his poorer physical health and as a result poorer children’s mental health. These issues have long-term implications on the ability of children to fulfill their potential as well as consequences for the health, education, labor, and criminal justice systems of our society.
For instance, a boy named Bobby is being physically abused by his father and often acts out aggressively at school. His behavior is a natural reaction to the abuse, but his behavior may also mark the beginning of an undiagnosed conduct disorder. His teachers simply see him as a troublemaker and continually punish his behavior. Later, Bobby drops out of school as a teenager because he finds it a harsh and unwelcoming environment and is anxious to leave his abusive home and fend for himself. However, holding down a job is difficult because Bobby often clashes with his coworkers and supervisors due to his aggression. Bobby has also begun to self-medicate by abusing alcohol and has been arrested a number of times for drunken disorderliness. By the time Bobby finally receives a proper diagnosis of his conduct disorder and substance abuse, he is in his 30s and his mental health problems have become deeply entrenched. They will require extensive therapy, which Bobby probably cannot afford without a job that provides adequate health insurance. Things could have been very different if Bobby was referred to a psychologist in his childhood who could have diagnosed him, offered effective treatment, and alerted the authorities about the abuse.
All children have the right to happy and healthy lives and deserve access to effective care to prevent or treat any children’s mental health problems that they may develop. However, there is a tremendous amount of unmet need, and health disparities are particularly pronounced for children living in low-income communities, ethnic minority children, and oppressed populations such as those defined by gender identity and sexual orientation; immigration status; physical, developmental, and intellectual disabilities; or chronic medical conditions.
How many Children have Mental Disorders?
An estimated 20 million of our nation’s young people can currently be diagnosed with a mental disorder. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 1 in 5 U.S. children ages 3–17 has a mental, emotional, behavioral, or developmental disorder. (U.S. Surgeon General Issues Advisory on Youth Mental Health Crisis Further Exposed by COVID-19 Pandemic, 2019). Many more are at risk of developing a disorder due to risk factors in their biology or genetics; within their families, schools, and communities; and among their peers. There is a great need for children’s mental health professionals to provide the best available culturally appropriate care based on scientific evidence, good clinical expertise, and the unique characteristics of the child. However, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) it is estimated that only about 20% of these children who need services receive appropriate help from mental health professionals.
What is the Impact of Mental Disorders on Children?
Children’s mental health is important to overall health. Mental disorders are chronic health conditions—conditions that last a long time and often don’t go away completely—that can continue through the lifespan. Without early diagnosis and treatment, children with mental disorders can have problems at home, in school, and in forming friendships. Mental disorders can also interfere with a child’s healthy development, causing problems that can continue into adulthood.
What are the Symptoms of Childhood Mental Disorders?
Symptoms of mental disorders change over time as a child grows, and may include difficulties with how a child plays, learns, speaks, and acts, or how the child handles their emotions. Symptoms often start in early childhood, although some disorders may develop during the teenage years. The diagnosis is often made in the school years and sometimes earlier; however, some children with a mental disorder may not be recognized or diagnosed as having one.
Can Children’s Mental Health Disorders be treated?
Childhood mental disorders can be treated and managed. There are many treatment options based on the best and most current medical evidence. Parents and doctors should work closely with everyone involved in the child’s treatment—teachers, coaches, therapists, and other family members. Taking advantage of all the resources available will help parents, health professionals, and educators guide the child toward success. Early diagnosis and appropriate services for children and their families can make a difference in the lives of children with mental disorders.
Research in psychology has contributed to the development of more effective promotion, prevention, and treatment approaches for children and families, including programs targeting expectant mothers, children in school settings, and children transitioning into adulthood. Culture, ethnicity, and language also influence children’s behavior in numerous ways and as a result, affect the methods of mental health promotion and the prevention and treatment of mental disorders. Psychologists have developed tools to assess the risk and protective factors for children’s mental health, to test for behavioral or emotional problems, to deliver treatment when needed, and to continually monitor treatment progress. Psychologists have also designed programs that effectively engage families, schools, and communities, that is, the critical social supports that can guarantee lasting well-being for children. For example, one successful family-centered program aimed at decreasing alcohol use in preteens engages parents and caregivers by training them on parenting skills such as setting limits, expressing clear expectations about substance abuse, communication, and discipline while also simultaneously training children on resistance skills and how to develop negative attitudes toward alcohol.
What you can do
Parents: You know your child best. Talk to your child’s healthcare professional if you have concerns about the way your child behaves at home, in school, or with friends.
Youth: It is just as important to take care of your mental health as it is to take care of your physical health. If you are angry, worried, or sad, don’t be afraid to talk about your feelings and reach out to a trusted friend or adult.
Healthcare professionals: Early diagnosis and appropriate treatment based on updated guidelines are very important. There are resources available to help diagnose and treat children’s mental disorders.
Teachers/school administrators: Early identification is important so that children can get the help they need. Work with families and healthcare professionals if you have concerns about the mental health of a child in your school.
This article is provided by Dr. Ralph Kueche (Child Psychologist). Dr. Kuechle is a Child and Adolescent Clinical Psychologist who specializes in treating children and their families who may be struggling with mood and behavioral issues. Learn more about Dr. Kuechle.