Resources: Know the warning signs of mental illness in children

Children and Mental Health

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — One of the challenges facing parents is recognizing when a child’s behavior is a typical part of development and when it may signal a deeper mental health issue.

Testing boundaries, moodiness, outbursts — these are things almost all children experience at one time or another, though they may look different depending on the individual child, their age and stage. As the mental health experts at North Alabama Psychiatric Associates stress, you know your child best.

That said, there are some recognized “red flags.” While children suffer from the same types of mental illnesses as adults, the outward signs may look different.

Below, we have compiled information that reflects the consensus of leading doctors from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Mayo Clinic and Johns Hopkins Medicine.

Common mental health disorders among children (from the Mayo Clinic)

  • Anxiety disorders. Anxiety disorders in children are persistent fears, worries or anxiety that disrupt their ability to participate in play, school or typical age-appropriate social situations. Diagnoses include social anxiety, generalized anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorders.
  • Eating disorders. Eating disorders are defined as a preoccupation with an ideal body type, disordered thinking about weight and weight loss, and unsafe eating and dieting habits. Eating disorders — such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge-eating disorder — can result in emotional and social dysfunction and life-threatening physical complications.
  • Depression and other mood disorders. Depression is persistent feelings of sadness and loss of interest that disrupt a child’s ability to function in school and interact with others. Bipolar disorder results in extreme mood swings between depression and extreme emotional or behavioral highs that may be unguarded, risky or unsafe.
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD is prolonged emotional distress, anxiety, distressing memories, nightmares and disruptive behaviors in response to violence, abuse, injury or other traumatic events.

Warning signs of mental illness in children (from the Mayo Clinic, CDC, Johns Hopkins Medicine)

  • Persistent sadness — two or more weeks
  • Withdrawing from or avoiding social interactions
  • Outbursts or extreme irritability
  • Drastic changes in mood, behavior or personality
  • Changes in eating habits
  • Loss of weight
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Frequent headaches or stomachaches
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Changes in academic performance
  • Avoiding or missing school

Warning signs of suicide in children (from the Mayo Clinic, Johns Hopkins Medicine)

  • Hurting oneself or talking about hurting oneself
  • Talking about death or suicide
  • Talking about “going away”
  • Drawing about death
  • Sharing posts online that are full of despair
  • Referring to things they “won’t be needing,” giving away important possessions
  • Talking about feeling hopeless or feeling guilty
  • Pulling away from friends or family and losing the desire to go out
  • Having no desire to take part in favorite things or activities
  • Trouble concentrating or thinking clearly
  • Changes in eating or sleeping habits
  • Self-destructive or risky behavior, such as running away, drinking or drug use, cutting

If you see any of these signs in your child, it’s time to seek professional help. Depression, anxiety and other mental health disorders can be crippling. Suicide ideation can be deadly.

After falling for a number of years, suicide rates among children began rising again in 2007. It’s now recognized as the second leading cause of death for children ages 10-17. According to Johns Hopkins, most suicide survivors reported they “didn’t want to die as much as they wanted to escape from what was going on. And at that particular moment dying seemed like the only way out.”

While it’s too soon to know the full impact of the pandemic on children’s mental health, early research is disturbing. The CDC reports from April-October 2020, the number of children’s mental-health Emergency Room visits increased approximately 24 percent for ages 5-11 and 31 percent for ages 12-17.

If you are looking for professional mental help for your child, your first call should be to your insurance carrier. They can give you a list of providers in your area and go over your coverage.

In Alabama, children in families who cannot afford medical insurance are covered under ALL Kids. You can find information about their mental health services here.

In Tennessee, the program is called Cover Kids, which also includes inpatient and outpatient mental health care and substance abuse treatment for low co-pays without limits. Prior authorization is required.

Important numbers to know:

  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255 or text CONNECT to 741741. You also can contact them through their website.
  • Trevor Lifeline for LGBTQ community: 1-866-488-7386 or text START to 678678. You can also contact them through their website.
  • National Alliance on Mental Illness: 1-800-950-NAMI or text NAMI to 741741

Additional resources:

Mayo Clinic: Mental illness in children, know the signs
Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital
CDC: Children’s Mental Health

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