2021 Blog Post

Recognizing Mental Illness in Children and Youth

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By VHA
child on chair

Kids and teenagers are constantly changing and as they grow, they experience a wide range of moods, thoughts and behaviours that can all be a part of regular childhood development. Because of this, it can be hard to tell which changes are developmentally appropriate or when concerning behaviours are actually symptoms of a mental health disorder.

Around one in five children in Ontario will experience a mental health challenge and about 70 per cent of adults living with mental illness first experience symptoms in childhood. Without treatment, mental illness can affect a child’s ability to function well at home, in school or in social situations and can continue throughout their life. If you’re concerned about your child’s mental health, here are some warning signs, risk factors, common disorders and tips for getting your child the help that they need.

What Are the Warning Signs of Mental Illness in Children?

All children and youth are different, but specific behaviours or characteristics to watch out for include:

  • Persistent sadness for two or more weeks
  • Withdrawing from friends, family and interests
  • Changes in school performance
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Constant worrying
  • Frequent angry outbursts or extreme irritability
  • Reactions that seem bigger than the situation
  • Repeated stomach aches, headaches or neck pain
  • Low energy or motivation
  • Avoiding or missing school
  • Changes in sleeping or eating habits
  • Weight loss or an obsession with weight
  • Lack of concern about their appearance
  • Drinking, using drugs or other risky behaviour
  • Hurting oneself or talking about self-harm or suicide

If you notice one or more of these changes in your child, it does not necessarily mean that they have a mental health condition. Some of these behaviours can happen at different stages in a child’s life—especially during the teenage years—but become concerning if they are intense, persistent, inappropriate for your child’s age or are interfering with their ability to function.

If you are ever worried about your child’s behaviour, reach out to your health care provider. Any mention of suicide or self-harm must be taken very seriously, and you should call your doctor or local mental health crisis line immediately.

Who Does This Affect?

Mental illness can affect youth at any age and from all backgrounds, but there are circumstances that may put young people at a higher risk for mental health struggles or can create barriers to getting help. Some risk factors include:

  • Family history of mental illness
  • Substance abuse
  • Facing or witnessing trauma
  • Big life changes
  • New immigrants and refugees
  • Aboriginal children and youth
  • LGBTQ children and youth

What are Some Examples of Mental Illness in Children?

Mental health conditions that are diagnosed and treated in children and youth can include:

  • Anxiety—persistent fears, worries or anxiety that affect daily life
  • Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)—difficulty with attention, impulsive behaviors and/or hyperactivity
  • Depression—prolonged feelings of sadness and a loss of interest in life activities
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)—obsessive thoughts and repetitive behaviour
  • Conduct Disorder—pattern of aggression and serious violations of rules and social norms
  • Schizophrenia—hallucinations, delusions, and disordered thinking and behaviour
  • Eating Disorders—dangerous eating behaviours and distorted body image
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)—emotional distress, anxiety and disruptive behaviours in response to traumatic events

What Can I Do?

Because mental health disorders can be hard to identify in youth, the stigma associated with mental illness and the cost of some treatments, only one in four children and teens in Canada who need help will actually receive it. The good news is that mental illness in children can be treated successfully, but getting help early is important to prevent problems from becoming serious and to limit the impact of mental illness on a child’s life. If your child has any of the risk factors for mental illness, it is even more important to support and monitor their mental health.

There are many approaches to helping children with mental health problems including psychotherapy and medication, depending on how their illness is affecting daily life. Your doctor can connect you to a mental health professional for a full evaluation to find the right diagnosis and treatment options for your child. If your child has been diagnosed with a mental health disorder, you will play a big role in their treatment plan. You may find it helpful to:

  • Learn as much as you can about their specific illness
  • Consider training programs designed for parents/caregivers of children with a mental health disorder
  • Ask your child’s health professional for tips on how to respond to your child and manage difficult behaviour
  • Find ways to relax and have fun with your child
  • Praise your child’s strengths and abilities
  • Listen to and respect their feelings
  • Create a positive home environment
  • Practice healthy lifestyle behaviours
  • Find stress management techniques that work for you