Mental illness may not always go by the same name – behavioral issue, emotional disorder or mental condition – but its impact on children is consistent. Almost 1 in 5 children in the United States suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder, yet only 20-25% of affected children receive treatment.
“The focus shouldn’t be on how we label mental illness rather the focus should be on how we encourage mental wellness,” said Georgette M. Constantinou, Ph.D., pediatric psychologist and administrative director of the Division of Pediatric Psychiatry and Psychology at Akron Children’s Hospital. “Parents need to be thoughtful in understanding why a child may be behaving a certain way – is there a valid reason for it or is it a pattern of behavior that’s getting in the way of a child’s everyday life? Talking about the behavior with the child and her pediatrician can help provide clarity.”
More than 14 million children and adolescents in the United States have a mental health disorder that requires intervention or monitoring, and interferes with daily functioning. Often, parents avoid seeking help because it’s embarrassing, frightening or they may regard mental illness as a personal failure on their part. But, seeking help doesn’t have to be stressful or difficult. It can be as easy as taking a child to a pediatrician.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, primary care physicians can nurture resilience, identify problems in child or family functioning, screen routinely for emerging symptoms and intervene when risks, concerns or symptoms arise.
“Akron Children’s primary care physicians do screenings for depression and high-risk behaviors as part of wellness checkups for adolescents and teens,” said Dr. Constantinou. “Done annually, these screenings help build trust and promote communication between the child, physician and parent, which is key to fostering mental wellness in a child.”
Mental health affects children, families and the community as a whole, which is why it’s important not to stigmatize or create an atmosphere of fear around children who may be suffering with mental illness. Instead, listening and offering support so children feel safe and have a positive outlook on themselves and others is a step in the right direction.
The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry recommends parents be aware of their child’s needs, concerns, knowledge and experience when talking to them about mental illnesses. Parents should:
- Communicate in a straightforward manner
- Communicate at a level that is appropriate to a child’s age and development level
- Have the discussion when the child feels safe and comfortable
- Watch their child’s reaction during the discussion
- Slow down or back up if the child becomes confused or looks upset
Feelings of sadness, anxiety or irritability are common, but when the feelings get very strong, last for a long period of time and begin to interfere with school, work and relationships, it may be a sign of mental illness that requires treatment.
Although there are different types of therapy and specialists a child can work with – from school counselors and pediatricians to pediatric psychologists – each relies on communications as the basic tool for bringing about change in a person’s feelings and behaviors.
“Our emotions are a significant part of who we are and they often dictate how we respond to situations in life,” said Dr. Constantinou. “Encouraging kids to identify their emotions and talk about how they feel are the first steps to establishing open channels of communication about feelings. Then, teaching healthy ways to cope with the emotion or situation will help them deal with highs and lows on their own throughout life…Mental well being is a way of life.”
When open communication and care from parents or a pediatrician isn’t enough, or for children and teens in crisis, Akron Children’s Psychiatric Intake Response Center can offer additional support and referrals.