The warning signs of children’s mental illness

Warning Signs of Children's Mental Illness

The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) defines mental illness in an easily understood way: A mental illness is a condition that affects a person's thinking, feeling or mood. Such conditions may affect someone's ability to relate to others and function each day. Each person will have different experiences, even people with the same diagnosis.

Many young people will experience mental concerns on occasion, but that concern becomes an illness when the symptoms are pervasive and affect their ability to navigate life in their usual way.

The signs and symptoms of a mental illness vary depending upon the specific disorder, the individual experiencing it, and the circumstances in which they live, attend school, work and play. However, there are symptoms and behaviors that can indicate that there may be something deeper. It is especially important to recognize signs and symptoms in the children under your care, so they can get the treatment they need as early as possible.

The Mayo Clinic provides a thorough list of signs and symptoms that could indicate a mental illness:

  • Feeling sad or down
  • Confused thinking or reduced ability to concentrate
  • Excessive fears or worries, or extreme feelings of guilt
  • Extreme mood changes of highs and lows
  • Withdrawal from friends and normal activities
  • Significant tiredness, low energy or problems sleeping
  • Detachment from reality (delusions), paranoia or hallucinations
  • Inability to cope with daily problems or stress
  • Trouble understanding and relating to situations and to people
  • Alcohol or drug abuse
  • Major changes in eating habits
  • Excessive anger, hostility or violence
  • Suicidal thinking

Other signs can include increased irrational or dangerous behavior, seeing or hearing things that aren’t real, paranoia or unexplained fear, self-harm like cutting, scratching, etc., increased defiance or disrespect, changes in appearance and interests, lying and/or manipulating behavior, or problems with hygiene and self-care.

A mental illness also can involve physical systems such as headaches, stomach pain, etc. If a child in your care is experiencing any of these symptoms – or a combination of them – and they are pervasive, talk to the parents about scheduling an appointment with a health care professional. If you are concerned that the symptoms are severe or the child may harm himself or others, check with your school or organization on their mandated reporting policies.

Some physical health factors of behavioral and emotional issues

A child may exhibit signs of mental health problems because of an undiagnosed physical impairment. It is very important for parents to work with a primary care physician or a specialist to identify and treat such dysfunctions. For example, unidentified dyslexia, hearing impairment or learning disabilities can lead to a lot of frustration for the child who is under pressure to perform in school, and it can lead to serious behavioral or emotional problems. Imagine the anxiety, anger and depression you would experience if you were asked and pressured every day to perform as a nurse or an accountant if you had very low vision and no glasses to help.

Sensory deficits also are increasingly common among children, the most acute exhibited by children with autism spectrum disorder. For example, a child that can’t sit still at the his desk and always rolls around on the floor when watching videos, may indicate that he is a sensation seeker -- in other words, his brain under-processes some of his senses (touch in particular). This deficit is often mistaken for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). On the other hand, some kids have elevated responses to their senses: They don’t like to be touched, the label on their T-shirts irritates them, or they hear sounds much louder than normal. Imagine your frustration if your physical senses were experiencing two to 10 times more than what they are now. Because of these differences, these children tend to be more isolated, anxious and irritable. They don’t have the tools to communicate what they experience, which is normal to them. Physical and or sensory-integrated therapy can make a huge difference for their physical health and resolve their behavioral issues.