By Emily Pierson, M.Ed., Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor
Are you a parent? Are you wanting to do everything you possibly can to help your child grow up healthy both physically and mentally? Or, are you a teenager, wondering if some of the struggles you are experiencing are unique to you? If either of these situations are true, you are not alone. Growing up or raising a child can be hard work. Life is full of stressors. Just thinking about trying to balance school, activities, homework, friends, family, future planning and other responsibilities can be overwhelming. Unfortunately, mental health concerns for children and teenagers are on the rise as well, which makes growing up that much harder.
More than 10% of teens between the ages of 12-17 reported having anxiety symptoms, and about 6% reported depression in a survey conducted by the CDC in 2018 (1). Globally, the World Health Organization reports that depression and anxiety both rank in the top ten illnesses amongst teens (2). Among teens aged 15-19, suicide is tragically, the fourth leading cause of death (2). It is no secret that adolescent mental illness is present. What is concerning, is that not addressing these issues can have an affect on a person living a fulfilling, joyful life as an adult.
Effects of Mental Illness on Youth
Just like mental illness can have negative effects on adults, anxiety, depression, and other mental health concerns can have a negative effect on children and teens. Family functioning, school success, and overall behavior can be affected by mental illness (3). In the home, behavioral changes can affect family relationships. Parents may not know what to do to help a child or teen. Trying to manage distress and disruption takes time away from siblings (3). At school, teens with mental illness are more likely to have failing grades, miss school, and exhibit behaviors that result in disciplinary action (3).
Unfortunately, fifty percent of all children in the welfare and juvenile justice systems have a mental health disorder which can lead to difficulty finding placement in a safe and secure environment (3). Some signs and symptoms to pay attention to in children may include (7):
- Withdrawal from social interactions or activities
- Hurting oneself or talking about death
- Behavioral outbursts
- Changes to eating or sleeping patterns
- Significant school struggles
- Inability to focus
- Other drastic mood changes
Risks for Mental Illness in Children and Teens
There are a number of risk factors for mental illness. Some, are hereditary. For example, if you have a person in your family with anxiety, you may be more likely to experience anxiety or anxious symptoms as well. Similarly, if a person is exposed to substances in utero, they may have an increased risk for some disorders as well. Other factors may be biological. Some individuals are predisposed to experience anxiety, depression or another disorder based on their hormones or genetic make-up. Some factors are related to childhood traumas and neglect.
ACEs: Between 1955 and 1997, the CDC and Kaiser Permanente gathered data and information about childhood traumas, abuse, and neglect (4). Over the twenty-two year long study, researchers were able to identify ten factors that contributed to mental illnesses developing in adulthood. These ten factors, categorized into abuse, household challenges, and neglect, were termed Adverse Childhood Experiences or ACEs. The more ACEs a person experiences prior to age 18, the more likely they are to develop a mental illness (4). Of the 17,337 people who participated in the survey, almost two-thirds of individuals reported one or more ACEs, and 12.5% reported four or more. Examples include (5):
- Experiencing violence in the home
- Being a victim of emotional, physical or sexual abuse
- Living in a home with individuals who use substances
- Having a family member incarcerated
- Instability in a parental relationship
- Living in a home in which the mother was abused
The study showed that ACEs can have long-term effects on mental and physical health. It is important to note however, that just because these factors may be present in a home, does not automatically mean that a child will develop a mental illness. There are protective factors as well.
Protective Factors for Children and Teens
While there are risk factors for mental illness, protective factors can also play a big part in prevention of the development of a mental illness at both the community and family level. The following is by no means a comprehensive list, but are some identified protective factors that can help prevent mental illness (6):
- Having basic needs met (food, shelter, health services)
- Having a safe, stable home with positive family relationships
- Having parents that are caring and engaged
- Having positive friends
- Valuing and doing well in school
- Having caring adults in the community who are involved in the child’s life
- Living in a community with resources available if needed
Thankfully, just because a person experiences an ACE or may have a genetic predisposition for mental illness, does not mean they will develop one. However, similar to adults, there are ways to manage and help your child (or yourself) if one does develop.
Ways to Help Manage Mental Illness in Children
There are a number of things that can be done to help children and teens manage mental illness. Some strategies can be done in the home, while others involve outside resources (7).
- Counseling or Therapy: Addressing childhood traumas, mental health concerns or behavioral issues can seem overwhelming at times. If so, there are therapists, counselors, and other professionals out there who are trained and ready to help. Clinicians can help to teach new behaviors, thought processes, and self-calming techniques. They can help encouraged children to “untangle” the mess of thoughts that can seem difficult to talk about. They can also use different therapeutic strategies address specific issues. Some schools are fortunate to have trained professionals in the building. If so, speak to your school about possibly accessing these services. Outpatient therapists are also typically available as well. If they are not available immediately in your area, telehealth may help provide services from another region.
- Use or Encourage Healthy Coping Skills: It’s no secret that managing a mental health struggle on top of everything else can be hard. Here are some ideas for healthy coping skills you can use or teach to help ease the stress:
- Read a book
- Go for a walk or run
- Join a supervised club or sport
- Spend time with positive friends
- Listen to music
- Volunteer at an animal shelter, library, or other place in the community
- Relax with family members
- Have a game night
- Bake or cook
- Clean and reorganize your room
- Draw, paint, or color
These are just a few ideas to get you started. The goal with using healthy coping skills, is to help reduce your stress to a more manageable level. It may take some practice or some trial and error to find the coping skills that work best for you.
- How Can Parents Help: In addition to doing your best to implement the protective factors described above, you can also teach your child several skills that can help them cope with their mental illness. Find a behavioral model (i.e., rewarding good behaviors, natural consequences, etc.) that fits your family’s needs best. Attend training programs or classes geared towards helping children with mental illness. Model and demonstrate healthy coping skills. Make an effort to praise their strengths, abilities and successes. Work with your child’s school and/or therapist to provide support and help achieve treatment goals. Find ways to help yourself respond calmly when situations get frustrating. Another great strategy, is to ask your child what they need in both “big picture” scenarios, and in the little moments. Sometimes when children act out, they are just looking for ways to express themselves. Finally, getting your own therapy around how to manage your own frustrations and disappointments of dealing with a struggling child can be very beneficial.
- Medication: Your child’s doctor or psychiatrist can prescribe medication that might be helpful as well. There are several options out there for medicinal remedies if other methods of treatment are not working.
Mental illness in children can be scary, overwhelming and have lifelong effects. The prevalence of these disorders is unfortunately rising as well. However, the more we learn about these disorders, the better prepared we are to help children manage and overcome them. A mental illness does not define anyone, and there are many protective factors and healthy ways to manage these concerns.
By Emily Pierson, Mental Health Therapist and Intake Coordinator at Wellness Matters LLC
Emily offers a holistic approach to mental health and wellness. In addition to prioritizing mental well-being, she uses a strengths-based perspective to improve relationships and physical health. She is passionate about helping teens and adults set and meet realistic, achievable goals, while also meeting them where they are in their journey.
Emily was born and raised in Alaska, where she received her Master’s degree in counseling from the University of Alaska Fairbanks. After moving to the “Lower 48”, she has been working as a therapist for the past four years.
- Children’s Mental Health: Data & Statistics. Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved from: https://www.cdc.gov/childrensmentalhealth/data.html. Accessed October 5, 2021.
- Adolescent Mental Health. World Health Organization. Retrieved from: https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/adolescent-mental-health. Accessed October 5, 2021.
- How Mental Health Disorders Affect Youth. gov. Retrieved from: https://youth.gov/youth-topics/youth-mental-health/how-mental-health-disorders-affect-youth. Accessed October 9, 2021.
- CDC-Kaiser ACE Study. Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved from: https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/aces/about.html. Accessed October 9, 2021.
- Fast Facts. Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved from: https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/aces/fastfact.html?CDC_AA_refVal=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.cdc.gov%2Fviolenceprevention%2Facestudy%2Ffastfact.html. Accessed October 9, 2021.
- Risk and Protective Factors. Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved from: https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/aces/riskprotectivefactors.html. Accessed October 9, 2021.
- Mental Illness in Children: Know the Signs. The Mayo Clinic. Retrieved from: https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/childrens-health/in-depth/mental-illness-in-children/art-20046577. Accessed October 9, 2021.