Children’s Mental Health Awareness | How to Help
Respecting National Children’s Mental Health Awareness Week – May 1st – May 7th
Helping kids embrace the fun of childhood is at the heart of what we do, but we know that’s easier said than done. May is National Mental Health Awareness Month, and on May 7th, we focus on how mental health impacts kids with National Children’s Mental Health Awareness Week.
How Many Kids Experience Mental Health Issues?
Unfortunately, mental illness and disorders are more common in children than we may want to believe.
We tend to view childhood as a carefree, joyous time that only devolves into stress and anxiety once the pressures of adult lifecreep in. Unfortunately, this is not the case. Nearly one in five U.S. adults lives with mental illness, but it may be alarming to learn that those numbers are mirrored in children.
As reported by Kids Mental Health, the Surgeon General states that about one in every five children has a diagnosable mental illness. This goes beyond the predictable irritability, occasional anxiety, or momentary sadness that kids can display; these are diagnosable conditions with short and long-term implications for the children experiencing them.
And it’s about time we shed some much-needed light on what kids are going through.
Talking About Mental Health in Children – Then & Now
Mental health struggles have impacted adults and children since the dawn of time, whether we knew it or not. In recent years, mental health has gained more public exposure in the community health conversation, but society has always had opinions on
those with a mental health diagnosis.
Studies have shown that the mental health stigma can manifest in several ways, including external discrimination and
internalized self-judgment. Misconceptions about mental disorders often lead to communities casting judgment on the child and their family, sparking rumors of abuse, neglect, or dysfunction.
Beyond the whispers they may be hearing in their community, children also internalize fear when facing mental health. Stereotypes and media portrayals of aggressive children don’t help either and create immediate challenges for kids struggling mentally:
“Am I a freak? What’s wrong with me? What will my friends say?”
They are just kids experiencing completely natural parts of life, and their support system is likely doing its best to care for them.
With all that pressure, asking for help may feel impossible. The responsibility of caregivers to recognize symptoms and encourage honest and safe conversations is increased, especially for children that are too young to fully understand the signs of mental illness.
But many adults are also in the dark about how to spot mental decline, where to find help, or how to start those conversations.
That’s how National Children’s Mental Health Awareness Week got its start.
National recognition for children’s mental health started in earnest in 2005 when the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) hosted a grassroots event in Washington, DC. The idea was that setting aside a day and hosting an event committed to children’s mental health would highlight the local efforts of care providers and potentially drum up some additional support.
Since then, SAMHSA has been joined by organizations throughout the country to honor children’s struggles with mental health and illuminate resources that can help.
Connecting both children and adults to educational resources and local care options has always been necessary. However, with the recent complications of a global pandemic, children’s mental health is more important now than in recent history.
There was a significant spike in ER visits for teens and adolescents due to a rise in suicide attempts throughout 2020 and 2021 when COVID-19 disrupted life as we knew it. Even in a time when conversations around mental health are encouraged and expected, the consequences of emotional and psychological struggles are a challenge we must confront together.
Signs of Mental Health Issues in Children
National Children’s Mental Health Awareness Week is crucial in educating people – parents, caregivers, teachers, etc. – on the prevalence of mental health challenges and how to recognize them in the children they care for.
Most Common Mental Health Concerns in Children and How to Recognize Them:
- Anxiety – The CDC reports that roughly 9% of children aged 3 to 17 have been diagnosed with anxiety. Early signs of childhood anxiety can include panic attacks, quick breathing, obsessive thinking, and situational avoidance that may impact school attendance or social engagement.
- Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) – Nearly 10% of children have been diagnosed with ADHD, according to the CDC’s look at 3 to 17-year-olds. From excessive talking and fidgeting to distractibility and inattention, ADHD can present itself in several ways for children. Symptoms may disrupt a child’s enjoyment or prosperity in school. Since behaviors associated with ADHD can last into adulthood, it may also affect their work environment as they grow.
- Behavior problems – About 9% of 3 to 17-year-olds face significant-enough behavioral issues to earn a formal diagnosis. This can include the behaviors indicative of Oppositional Defiant Disorder or Conduct Disorder, like breaking serious rules, disrespecting property, or engaging in violent or harmful acts. It is understood that these issues can be exacerbated by exposure to violence, crime, or neglect.
- Depression – The CDC’s analysis of 3 to 17-year-olds revealed that 4% were diagnosed with depression. Similar to depression in adults, children experiencing depressive episodes may show a decreased interest in their favorite activities, changes in their sleep patterns, and increased irritability.
Other less common but still prevalent conditions include:
- Eating problems
- Bathroom issues
- Learning disorders, such as dyslexia
- Involuntary movements, or tics
- Schizophrenia, or distorted thoughts and feelings
Though these indicators may tip you off to a deeper issue, it’s essential to consult mental health professionals about any concerning behaviors or patterns you observe in children. After all, every child is different and their expression of distress may not be as obvious to spot.
Also, keep in mind that many mental health conditions can appear in tandem, known as comorbidities. Anxiety and depression, for example, often occur together. Our list also doesn’t even begin to speak to neurodevelopmental conditions.
Take autism, for example, which also presents early on in life and can present challenging symptoms for children and their families. Reports show that there’s an at least 37% comorbidity rate between autism and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) as well as an up to 84% comorbidity rate between autism and anxiety. Understanding how to parse which symptoms reveal deeper or additional challenges is thus crucial when we assess how to help our children thrive.
Long-Term Impacts of Childhood Mental Health
Managing the day-to-day impacts of mental illness is its own challenge, but the social effects add additional difficulties. Whether it’s anxiety that forces a child to leave sleepovers early or ADHD that makes happily sharing in playground games difficult, the effects of mental health issues and the resulting exclusion can dim the joys of childhood.
Though symptoms may lessen over time, many of the most common adolescent mental health concerns can continue into adulthood. Harvard’s Center on Developing Children describes toxic stress as damaging brain architecture and increasing the likelihood that significant mental health problems will emerge. They go on to say that:
“Because of its enduring effects on brain development and other organ systems, toxic stress can impair school readiness, academic achievement, and both physical and mental health throughout the lifespan.”
Children are developing the minds and bodies they will have for the rest of their lives. Early intervention to help them cope with mental health strain is our best way to ensure their health and happiness. Finding ways to educate children and parents on the joy of inclusion is a good place to start.
How to Help Kids Navigate Their Mental Health
Despite the prevalence of mental health conditions in children, only about 20% of children with mental, emotional, or behavioral disorders receive care from a specialized mental health care provider.
We can do better.
Better treatment starts with making resources available to caregivers and combating the stigma around mental health. For helpful information and guidance on where to find care, these are some top resources:
- American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Facts For Families Guide
- Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Children’s Mental Health
- Child Mind Institute
- Mental Health America
- National Alliance on Mental Illness
- National Association of School Psychologists
- National Federation of Families
- Society of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology, Effective Child Therapy
- Youth – National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
We can also help each other.
As managing mental illness does not stop after you receive a diagnosis or get prescribed a treatment plan, being a supportive, knowledgeable caregiver and friend is invaluable. Help parents, share the resources you’ve found helpful and offer assistance without shaming children or their families.
How KIT Can Make You a Better Caregiver
Taking steps to ensure an inclusive environment for all children, including those with mental health issues, is how we are planning to honor National Children’s Mental Health Awareness Week. What about you?
Become a better caregiver with KIT courses on social-emotional support that help you combat bullying and manage conflict. Learn behavior management and assessment, too! Or even help kids celebrate their differences and foster friendships.
It takes a village, and we’re happy to join yours.