08 Sep Seven Misconceptions about Childhood Mental Illness:
The possibility of a mental health diagnosis, especially for children, can invoke a lot of fear. Parents and guardians may avoid identifying or responding to changes in their child’s mood or behavior, in part due to the misconceptions that this fear can invoke. Research however supports the evidence that early identification and intervention are essential for promoting recovery and prevention of the worsening of symptoms. Many of the fears we experience about mental illness are not rooted in science. Below are some of the common misconceptions that parents need to be aware if they have concerns about their child’s wellness.
Misconception 1: Mental Illness is an adult problem.
According to Psychiatry.org, more than half of all mental illnesses begin by the age of 14 and three-quarters by age 24. These statistics demonstrate that almost all psychiatric illnesses begin prior to adulthood, suggesting that the optimal time for screening and identification is childhood. But all too often, childhood mental illness is not identified, resulting in poor performance and outcomes. Research tells us that early intervention is key to mitigation of the symptoms and promotes long term improvement of overall functioning. A study reported in the International Journal on Mental Health Systems identified that “Integrated and multidisciplinary services are needed to increase the range of possible interventions and limit the risk of poor long-term outcome.”
Misconception 2: Childhood mental health symptoms mirror adult symptom profiles.
Mental health symptoms in children are not just miniaturized adult symptoms. Kids do not always possess the language skills or the emotional intelligence to be able to describe their symptoms, additionally the symptoms may manifest differently. Children will often complain of physical aches and pains, changes in sleep or appetite, and difficulty concentrating according to the Mayo clinic. As children may not display the same symptoms as a depressed or anxious adult may, it is essential for parents to pay attention to changes in your child’s behavior, look at patterns of these changes, and monitor how long they persist. Seeking assistance from your pediatrician to conduct some general screenings is a beneficial place to start if there are concerns noted.
Misconception 3: Parents always know their child is struggling.
Because the symptoms of childhood mental illness may not be easily identified, parents may not recognize their child is struggling. As mental illness is defined as emotional and behavioral symptoms that impair a person’s ability to function, parents should pay attention to any change in their child’s behavior. Poor academic performance, withdrawing from activities they enjoy, or avoidance may all be signs of an underlying emotional crisis.
Similarly, parents may fear judgement, that they are somehow to “blame” for the emotional symptoms their child is experiencing. Parenting skills alone do not “create” mental health symptoms and result from a complex system of contributing factors, including biological, genetic, and environmental. Parents are truly seen as partners in their child’s treatment and are actively enlisted as a support resource in the treatment process. Therapists do not seek to place blame, rather seek to understand and offer support and skill development for everyone in the treatment team.
Misconception 4: Behavior and mood changes are “just a phase.”
Many adults hold the belief that children are “just going through a phase,” and being a moody pre-teen or teen is a normal rite of passage of growing up. While there is truth that children are navigating a lot of developmental growth, changes in hormones, and defining their independence from their parent these can also be warning signs that a child is struggling. Parents and educators need to pay close attention to changes in behavior and objectively react to these changes.
Misconception 5: Medication is the best line of defense in treating mental illness in children.
In our fast-paced culture, we often look for the easiest and quickest solution to a problem. The use of pharmaceuticals is very often the first line of treatment in resolving health concerns or symptoms. The National Alliance on Mentally Illness (NAMI) cites that medications are far more effective when combined with psychotherapy and research from the National Institutes of Health identifies that multi-modal treatment, such as Cognitive Behavior Therapy, combined with medications is the most efficacious in promoting long term recovery. Medications can help lessen the severity of the symptoms experienced, making it easier to learn skills to combat the negative thought patterns that emerge with depression and anxiety.
Misconception 6: Violent behavior is a common behavior for children with mental health symptoms.
Similar to misconceptions about adults with mental health diagnoses, there are beliefs that children with mental health symptoms can be dangerous. The facts however demonstrate that children are more likely victims of violence and that this exposure to trauma can lead to the development of symptoms of depression and anxiety. According to the US Justice Department, 60% of children were exposed to violence and that those children “are more likely to abuse drugs and alcohol; suffer from depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic disorders; fail or have difficulty in school; and become delinquent and engage in criminal behavior.” The Educational Fund to End Gun Violence cites that only 4% of interpersonal violence is attributed to mental illness alone. The take away is to not fear a child’s symptoms which may result in avoiding adequate intervention.
Misconception 7: A mental health diagnosis in childhood will “label” a child for life.
This is false and in reality, the opposite is true. Avoiding treatment for mental illness is associated with poorer outcomes. Early intervention will arm the child and their support system with tools to be able to respond to the symptoms and develop healthy means of coping with the symptoms they experience. Dr. Harold Koplewicz, founder and president of the Child Mind Institute identifies that when left “untreated mental illness of childhood has put them at risk for poor outcomes down the road, like school dropout, incarceration, and even suicide.” Additionally, when unable to cope in a healthy way, children may turn to unhealthy means of managing those symptoms such as alcohol and other drugs.
When faced with a challenge in life, it is always beneficial to understand some of our inherent misconceptions about how to approach the crisis. Childhood mental health is a complex matter and understanding research supporting the most effective means of approaching the problem and seeking out the assistance of professionals will arm parents with the best resources to support their children.