Recognizing Mental Health Issues in Children and Youth

Mental disorders cause serious and long-term changes in the way children and adolescents typically learn, behave, or handle their emotions. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that 13-20% of children in the United States experience a mental disorder in any given year. Early diagnosis and appropriate evidence-based treatment are key to helping children and teens experiencing mental or behavioral issues.

In both children and teens, it can be difficult to recognize signs of mental disorders, as opposed to behavioral changes due to stress. For example, the arrival of a new sibling may cause a child to temporarily act much younger than he or she is. For children, pay special attention to:

  • Problems across a variety of settings, such as at school, at home, or with peers.
  • Changes in appetite or sleep.
  • Social withdrawal, or fearful behavior toward things your child normally is not afraid of.
  • Returning to behaviors more common in younger children, such as bed-wetting, for a long time.
  • Signs of being upset, such as sadness or tearfulness.
  • Self-destructive behavior, such as head-banging, or a tendency to get hurt often (in older children and teens, look for behaviors such as cutting).
  • Repeated thoughts of death.

In teens, warning signs aren’t always obvious, but more common symptoms include persistent irritability, anger, or social withdrawal, as well as major changes in appetite or sleep. Pay close attention to signs such as:

  • Marked fall in school performance.
  • Poor grades in school despite trying very hard.
  • Severe worry or anxiety, as shown by regular refusal to go to school, go to sleep or take part in activities that are normal for the child's age.
  • Frequent physical complaints.
  • Marked changes in sleeping and/or eating habits.
  • Extreme difficulties in concentrating that get in the way at school or at home.
  • Sexual acting out.
  • Depression shown by sustained, prolonged negative mood and attitude, often accompanied by poor appetite, difficulty sleeping or thoughts of death.
  • Severe mood swings.
  • Strong worries or anxieties that get in the way of daily life, such as at school or socializing.
  • Repeated use of alcohol and/or drugs.

You may want to talk to other adults who regularly observe your child’s behavior – such as teachers, the School Nurse, counselors, and daycare providers. Don’t hesitate to consult your child’s healthcare provider for evaluation or a referral to a specialist in child behavioral problems (such as a psychiatrist, psychologist, social worker, psychiatric nurse, or behavioral therapist).

To Learn More

The National Institute of Mental Health provides facts on recognizing and treating mental illness in children: http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/treatment-of-children-with-mental-illness-fact-sheet/index.shtml and a variety of publications on specific mental disorders in children and adolescents: http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/children-and-adolescents-listing.shtml

The Department of Health and Human Services Office of Adolescent Health provides information on teen mental health: http://www.hhs.gov/ash/oah/adolescent-health-topics/mental-health/home.html

The interagency FindYouthInfo.gov website provides a wide variety of information on youth mental health: http://findyouthinfo.gov/youth-topics/youth-mental-health

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration provides information and resources to promote awareness of childhood mental health: www.samhsa.gov/children

American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, as cited in the FindYouthInfo.gov website:http://findyouthinfo.gov/youth-topics/youth-mental-health/warning-signs