How to Recognise Signs of Mental Health Problems in Your Child

Mental Health

Dr. Happy

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve said and/or written that as parents, one of our main priorities is for our children to be healthy and happy. But every time I’ve written or said something along these lines, I’ve also noted that as common as this goal is, we parents need to be careful that we don’t have unrealistic expectations; that is, no child (or no person of any age for that matter) will be happy ALL the time!

The so called “negative emotions”, such as depression and anxiety, anger and frustration, are perfectly normal. As humans, it’s perfectly appropriate to experience the full range of emotions, including those that are less pleasurable, and many of these are, at times, even helpful and adaptive. Fear, for example, is considered to be a powerfully useful evolutionary adaptation as it prevents us from taking unnecessary risks or from thoughtlessly approaching danger.

The point is, therefore, that stress and anxiety and sadness and other forms of emotional distress are all normal; and we shouldn’t try to eliminate them from our lives, or from the lives of our children.

At the same time, however, there’s a point when “normal” becomes abnormal, or unhealthy; when the intensity or duration of the distress begins to impact on that person’s ability to function or enjoy life, when it impairs their work or schooling or social interactions.

How do we determine when the line’s been crossed? In simple terms, there are two criteria we can use to determine when enough is enough. Firstly, if the number of signs and symptoms accumulates to the point that our child is experiencing more than four of five of the following, we should start to become concerned.

For depression:

  • Sad or low mood
  • Difficulty concentrating and/or making decisions
  • Loss of interest in activities previously found to be enjoyable
  • Disturbed appetite
  • Insomnia or poor sleep
  • Low energy levels
  • Feelings of hopelessness or helplessness

For anxiety (although please note, it’s very common for depression and anxiety to co-exist):

  • Physical: panic attacks, hot and cold flushes, racing heart, tightening of the chest, quick breathing, restlessness, or feeling tense, wound up and edgy
  • Psychological: excessive fear, worry, catastrophizing, or obsessive thinking
  • Behavioural: avoidance of situations that make you feel anxious which can impact on study, work or social life

(NB: for more information, check out the Beyond Blue “Facts” page here)

The second issue to keep in mind is the duration and impact of these signs and symptoms. That is, if they’ve persisted for more than just a few days, in fact more than two weeks, then this should be considered a warning sign. And as noted above, if the impact they’re having is significant enough to impair normal function, occupationally or educationally or socially or in any life domain then again, this should raise some degree of alarm.

The next, and the really important question then becomes…what do I do if I notice and am concerned about my child’s mental health?

Here’s what I’d recommend…

  • Firstly, do something! Don’t ignore them; don’t just hope they’ll disappear; and don’t just put them down to “normal adolescence”! Rather, find an appropriate time (ideally when everyone is relatively calm and not rushed or distracted) and gently reflect upon what you’ve observed. Don’t worry too much about getting all the words perfect, just honestly and genuinely describe what you’ve noticed and ask your child what s/he thinks and feels about them
  • Do some research. I’ve already provided a link to the very helpful Beyond Blue website but you can also find some fantastic information and resources at Reach Out (here) and the Black Dog Institute (here), to name just a few
  • Seek professional help – as parents, you can be supportive and loving but obviously not all parents will or can be mental health professionals. The good news, however, is that you don’t have to be. Your job is not necessarily to be the expert, but to get your child to the right expert. So, consider reaching out and asking for help from one or more of the following: the school counsellor, your GP, or a clinical psychologist.

The good news is that most people with the most common forms of mental ill-health can be helped relatively quickly with contemporary, effective treatments (such as Cognitive Behaviour Therapy). Having a mental health problem is no different to having any other health problem. If we can just overcome our fear and ignorance, break down the stigma associated with mental ill-health, and seek appropriate professional support as soon as possible then most of us, and our children can regain or recreate a healthy and happy and successful life, relatively quickly and easily. 

Dr Happy

Please note: Dr Happy's blog is general advice only. For further information on this topic, please consult your healthcare professional.

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