Mental Illness and Mental Health in Children and Youth

Unfortunately the term “A Happy Childhood” does not apply to all children and youth. It is estimated that 10-20% of Canadian youth are affected by a mental illness or mental disorder, as it is also referred to. Mental disorders are the single most disabling group of disorders worldwide. Surpassed only by injuries, mental disorders in youth are the second highest hospital care expense in Canada.

The good news is that about 70% of childhood mental disorders can be treated successfully by getting help early. The bad news is that youth mental health disorders are difficult to diagnose because many physical illnesses mimic the symptoms of mental illness.  So how can parents, friends, and teachers make the lives of these youths better?

What Is Mental Illness?

Barbara Everett, Ph. D explained on the Mental Illness Awareness Week (MIAW) page: “There are different kinds of mental disorders each characterized by different sets of symptoms that affect how we think, feel and behave. Symptoms can include depressed mood, extreme mood swings, disturbances in thought or perception, obsessions or fears, or other overwhelming feelings of anxiety… different symptoms that persist for a specific period of time and significantly interfere with a person’s roles, activities, relationships and/or capacity for self-care.”

What Are Some Mental Disorders?

Wikipedia list as many as 400 different mental disorders or also referred to as mental illness. Mental disorders are diagnosed using internationally recognized criteria and often lead to significant impairments in day-to-day living affecting work/study, home/school, and social life of the individual. The following may be some of those you are more familiar with:

  • Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder
  • Eating Disorders
  • Bipolar Disorder
  • Major Depression
  • Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)
  • Panic Disorder
  • Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder
  • Schizophrenia
  • Seasonal Affective Disorder
  • Sleep Disorder
  • Tourette’s Syndrome

Is There a Cure for Mental Disorder/Illness?

You and the youth you are helping must know and accept that mental illness is a real illness and you can’t fix it like you can fix a broken leg. You must face the fact that treatment, finding the medication or therapy that works for you, can take frustrating months or even years. With each new attempt with a different approach to treatment or a new medication it can be three to four months before one starts feeling any sort of relief or for the treatment to be recognised as not helping and this puts you back to square one.

Accept the fact that treating mental illness rarely results in a “cure,” per se. Your goal is for your loved one to feel better, get better, and eventually no longer need treatment or know what medication to use to be stabilized and be in remission.

 Often family members and friends will notice a recurrence of mental illness symptoms first.What to Do During a Mental Illness Relapse?

When you notice an abating of symptoms, and then enjoy a period of stability know how to recognise a relapse.  Knowing the steps to take to get immediate help must be first-hand knowledge on the part of the caregiver and the individual himself. Often family members and friends will notice a recurrence of symptoms first. To avoid a serious relapse an adjustment in treatment must be made. It could be as simple as adjusting  the medication dosage but for this your family doctor should be easy to reach for immediate action.

If you are in crisis go immediately to your local emergency room.

How to Support a Child or Youth with Mental Illness?

Most mental disorders cannot be definitively diagnosed with an objective medical test. Just to receive the correct diagnosis is a feat in itself because your family doctor and/or a specialized mental health professional such as a psychiatrist or psychologist must rely on explanations given by the youth or his caregivers. Then added to this could be observations by teachers and friends, results of psychological tests, and finally by analyzing all this, a decision/diagnosis must be made. To make the process more difficult, more than one disorder could be present.

With our child, after many years of searching for answers, it was only at the age of 19 that we receive combined diagnoses of Tourette’s syndrome and Bipolar Disorder. That was many years ago, so I would hope that now parents with young children who are not well will find answers in a much shorter time span. We all know that the earlier people get help, the better the outcome. Mental disorders, if not treated early, can be disruptive enough to a child’s normal development and affect them for the rest of their lives.

Red heart ballons - When a youth is diagnosed with a mental disorder or learns and understands that he has one, family and friends must show love and support. When a youth is diagnosed with a mental disorder or learns and understands that he has one, family and friends must show love and support. This youth must know you will be there for him and he/she can count on you. Together learn all you can about the disorder and look for online support or support groups at school or in the community.

Seek the best treatment available, accompany the youth to his appointments, and make sure he follows through on the directives of his healthcare giver(s).  Make sure your loved one can discuss his problems with you or with the professionals working with him. The stigma many feel surrounding mental illness must be dispelled. Often we are told that when one learns of his diagnosis he feels “broken” and damaged.  These teens must be made to feel that they are the same person, just with an illness. And together you will get through it. Also it is good to point out that research continually produces new ways and new medications to treat and control mental disorders.

Many times feelings of anxiety or depression set in, therefore teach your teen relaxation techniques such as Yoga, deep breathing, and other self-calming techniques. Look into classes for kids offered in your area or even in school. Make sure your child has adequate, quality sleep, proper meals, and daily physical activity. Encourage and facilitate time spent with youth his same age.

The National Council for Community Behavioral Healthcare stated: “For young people living with serious mental illnesses to succeed in the adult world, they need more than treatment. These youth need to be truly integrated into their communities. They need jobs that offer skills, dignity, independence, and peers. They need a responsible and caring older adult who can help them to make better choices, learn from their mistakes, and applaud their successes, no matter how small.”

The Mental Health Awareness Week page tells us that all must know that neither denial of the problem nor delay in seeking treatment is the answer. Much of the fear surrounding mental illness is based on myths and misunderstandings. Mental illness need not be feared. Like other medical conditions, mental illness needs to be treated.

Helpful Mental Health Links:Paul Komarek, and Andrea Schroer on their revised and updated book, Defying Mental Illness 2013 Edition: Finding Recovery with Community Resources and Family Support.

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