When your child has a sore throat or fever, you probably don’t hesitate to take him or her to the doctor. You know that with the right medication and care, your child will probably make a full recovery — and the sooner the child is treated, the sooner he or she will be healthy again.
But when it comes to mental illness, parents sometimes feel differently. The very term “mental illness” sounds scary. Many people believe, incorrectly, that once a child has mental illness, he or she will always have it.
Some parents blame themselves, believing — again incorrectly — that if their child has mental health problems, it’s their fault and they have failed as parents.
The signs of mental illness can sometimes be harder to recognize than those of a physical illness. It may be easy to think a child who is moody or easily distracted is just “going through a phase,” when actually the youngster may be suffering from depression or attention deficit disorder.
Unfortunately, such misperceptions make parents hesitate to seek mental health treatment for their children, and sometimes make them feel ashamed when they do seek help. But like a physical illness such as an ear infection or bronchitis, mental health problems can get worse without proper care.
Mental illness in children is more common than many people realize. In fact, half of all lifelong cases of mental illness begin by age 14. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), one in five children (20 percent) ages 13 to 18 has a mental health condition, with mood disorders (e.g., depression), behavior disorders and anxiety being the most common.
But the most astounding — and heartbreaking — fact that NAMI reports about children and mental illness is that the average length of time between the onset of symptoms and the beginning of treatment is eight to 10 years! It’s unlikely any parent would let a child run a fever for nearly a decade, half the child’s life, before seeking medical care.
The impact of untreated mental health problems can be devastating for children, not only interfering with their ability to make friends and function at home, but also affecting their performance in school. Research has found that children with mental health problems get lower grades and miss more school. More than 40 percent of children with mental illness drop out of school altogether.
But there is good news about mental illness in children: It is treatable. Just as children can recover from an intestinal or sinus infection with the right combination of medication and other care, children can recover from mental health problems with medication, counseling and other supports (which may include tutoring, art therapy, home visits and more).
May 1-7 is National Children’s Mental Health Awareness Week. The need for such awareness is great.
Mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of, but instead is something that should be taken seriously. As with any illness, the sooner your child receives treatment for mental health problems, the more likely he or she is to recover and be a productive member of your family, peer group and community. The only shame is in ignoring the problem and not getting children the help they need.
If you are concerned about the mental health of your child, talk to the child’s doctor or school counselor, or call a local mental health clinic. Mental health treatment is widely available and proven to be effective. Usually, with the right care and support, your child can be healthy again.
Melanie Dallas is a licensed professional counselor (LPC) and is CEO of Highland Rivers Health, one of Georgia’s Community Service Boards. The agency provides services for mental health, addiction and intellectual developmental disabilities in a 12-county region of Northwest Georgia.