Recognising Mental Health Issues in Kids

You may feel uncomfortable talking about it, but mental health affects one in seven kids. Anna Gibson reports on the early warning signs.

Mental health is the way we think about ourselves, what’s going on around us and how we respond to life’s challenges and joys. It’s also an increasing concern in our kids. According to the National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing, about one in seven children aged four to 17 years experience a mental-health problem.

Twenty-year-old Stephanie* was a shy toddler who found it almost impossible to speak to other children. She started school a year late, wasn’t a great sleeper, and by the time she was seven was using classic obsessive-compulsive disorder techniques to calm her growing anxiety, taking up to half an hour to put on her socks. She experienced intense phobias that caused her to flee from anyone who coughed around her, and struggled with anxiety that showed up in angry outbursts and periods of withdrawal. “It took us about a year before we realised this was a problem that wasn’t going to go away,” says her mother, Lara*.

Stephanie still had great friends and loved school, but she was also deeply competitive and driven by “an enormous fear of failure”. It wasn’t unusual for her to spend two hours a night on homework. Her projects were a thing of beauty: bound and boxed like gifts from a high-end luxury store. “I did very well, but I was extremely stressed,” says Stephanie.

At the age of 12, she began regular sessions with senior clinical psychologist Janelle Dean, who taught Stephanie to challenge her thoughts with rational arguments, using her innate logical thinking to help herself. “It was such a relief to finally get help,” says Stephanie. “I knew my fears were irrational, but I couldn’t stop them. I had low self-esteem and felt weird. I resented having to go through it, my mum had to drag me along, but I began to apply the things Janelle taught me and I found they were useful.”

By 17, Stephanie had accepted that anxiety was part of her make-up and became a great believer in the power of early intervention for mental-health issues and began volunteering for ReachOut.com, an online youth mental-health resource. Stephanie’s mental-health techniques are now habits: a strict study timetable helps her manage stress, and she doesn’t drink alcohol and keeps active to give herself an outlet for any built-up tension.

Lara says the stigma around children’s mental illness made it a taboo subject among parents when her kids were little. “Parents at primary school were reluctant to say their child was anything other than perfect,” she says. “I would encourage any parent to seek help as soon as they can. Parents often think mental illness in their child is too hard, but the more you leave it, the more entrenched and ingrained it will become. Of course sometimes you wish it was otherwise, but when you look at the results, Stephanie has worked so hard on herself, I really admire her. She’s a strong woman.”

Increased scientific evidence supports getting in early when it comes to mental health in kids and babies according to child-development experts such as the Mental Health Council of Australia and the government-funded KidsMatter Australian Early Childhood Mental Health Initiative.

Good mental health underpins everything in our lives: it has an impact on our physical health, our immunity and allows us to form positive relationships, get through challenges and generally enjoy life.

Scientific, genetic and medical research over the past30 years has shown us that mental health is closely connected to early development (0-3 years), when the brain is forming key patterns (or circuits) that will be the scaffolding for all future brain circuitry. A small minority of children are genetically predisposed to mental disorders, but for most kids, mental health is linked to risk or protective factors: elements in their life that either encourage their mental health or disrupt/inhibit it, and a child’s closest carers are the key here.

The single most important thing parents can do for their children’s mental health is to provide a caring, accepting and supporting family environment for their child’s development according to Professor Ron Rapee, an executive of the Centre for Emotional Health at Macquarie University, and a leading researcher in the field of child and adult anxiety for more than 20 years.

The independent Crossroads: Rethinking the Australian Mental Health System (2014) study points out that global research has found prevention and early intervention lowers suicide rates, rates of adult and childhood depression and anxiety, and improves education and transition to the workforce in young people who have experienced mental-health issues. “Because mental-health problems can affect such a broad aspect of children’s lives, including schoolwork, family relationships and friendships, getting treatment as early as possible is extremely valuable,” says Ron.

*Name has been changed.

More Info:  What to do if you think your child has a mental illness?