Over the past year, as the impacts of the pandemic accumulated, I wrote several columns about how children might be particularly vulnerable to emotional and mental health problems. The disruption of a sense of normalcy, feelings of isolation and loss, and for many families, grief, all increased the potential for mental health challenges among children and adolescents. Studies have found millions of young people did – and continue to – experience such challenges. It’s been a rough year on so many levels.
Each year, the first week of May is recognized as Children’s Mental Health Awareness Week. But even if you are reading this later in May – or in June or any other time – that’s ok; the mental health of our children is a priority every week. Really, every day.
This year, in recognition of the ongoing impact of the pandemic, I wanted to share some practical information about possible signs your child might need emotional support or extra help. If your child does need some help, he or she is not alone, and neither are you or your family – one in five children will experience a mental health condition, and half of all cases begin by the time a child is 14 years old.
The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) has provided a list of several signs your child may be experiencing an emotional or mental health disturbance. Of course, if your child is exhibiting any of these behaviors, it does not necessarily mean he or she has mental health problems; only a trained professional can make that determination. But according to NIMH, young children may benefit from mental health evaluation if they:
• Have frequent tantrums or are intensely irritable much of the time
• Talk often about fears or worries
• Complain of frequent stomachaches or headaches with no known medical cause
• Are in constant motion and cannot sit quietly (except when watching videos or playing videogames)
• Sleep too much or too little, have frequent nightmares, or seem sleepy during the day
• Are not interested in playing with others or have difficulty making friends
• Struggle academically or have declining grades
• Repeat actions or check things many times out of fear something bad may happen
Older children and adolescents may benefit from evaluation if they:
• Have lost interest in things they used to enjoy
• Sleep too much, seem sleepy throughout the day or have low energy
• Have periods of highly elevated energy and activity, and require much less sleep than usual
• Are spending more and more time alone, and avoid social activities with friends or family
• Diet or exercise excessively, or fear gaining weight
• Engage in self-harming behaviors (such as cutting or burning their skin)
• Smoke, drink alcohol, or use drugs
• Engage in risky or destructive behavior alone or with friends
• Have thoughts of suicide
• Say they think someone is trying to control their mind or that they hear things other people cannot hear
Certainly, many of these behaviors are a normal part of growing up, going through changes and adolescence, and may not be cause for concern. But others, like thinking or talking about suicide, are much more serious and should be addressed right away. As a parent, you know you child best and should never hesitate to seek help for your child, even if he or she resists.
If you feel your child might be struggling with mental health, talk to your child’s doctor, pediatrician or school counselor. You can also contact Cobb County Community Services Board at 770-429-5000 for information about scheduling an appointment. Help is always available.
Finally, the most important thing to know about children’s mental health is this: with the right treatment and support, children can learn strategies to build resiliency, manage their emotions and recover from almost any mental health challenge.
Melanie Dallas is a licensed professional counselor and Interim CEO of Cobb County Community Services Board and CEO of Highland Rivers Health. Both Community Service Boards provide treatment and recovery services for individuals with mental illness, substance use disorders, and intellectual and developmental disabilities.