CHILDHOOD MENTAL ILLNESS
Childhood is usually thought of as a happy, carefree time in life, but for
more than seven million children in the United States, that happiness can be
elusive because of mental illness.
Left untreated, mental illnesses in children and adolescents too often lead to
tragic results. Because they occur at a crucial point in a young person's
physical and social development, mental illnesses may cause delays in
development that lead to further problems in adulthood. For many
adolescents with a mental illness, the burden is overwhelming. Among
adolescents ages 15 to 19, suicide is the second-leading cause of death.
Mental illnesses in children and adolescents can be successfully treated, but
the key is early detection and access to adequate mental health services.
Unfortunately, only one in five children with a mental illness actually
receives needed services. Types of Mental Illnesses in Children and Their Causes
Children and adolescents are susceptible to the same mental illnesses that
afflict adults. In fact, many of the symptoms of adult mental illness appear
before age 20. Young people are especially at risk of depression, obsessive-
compulsive behaviors, phobias, and substance abuse. Some mental
illnesses, such as depression, can occur in young children too young to
effectively communicate their pain.
Other forms of mental illness that appear in childhood or adolescence are
severe emotional disorders or behavior disorders. As many as one in five
Missouri children may have an emotional or behavioral disorder, ranging
from barely noticeable to disruptive to their education, development, and
The causes of mental illness are varied, but most are caused by imbalances
in the brain's chemistry, by a head injury, or by emotional trauma. Some
mental illnesses are more prevalent in some families, suggesting a
Mental illnesses are not signs of weak character, immorality, or punishment
for sins. They cannot be willed away and children or adolescents cannot
Parents and educators are the most likely to detect a mental illness or
emotional disorder because of their constant contact with children. Some of
the warning signs follow:
• a drop in school performance
• unwarranted worry or anxiety
• an inability to cope with day-to-day problems
• changes in sleeping or eating habits
• aggression toward others
• an excessive fear of getting fat, of not being liked, etc., beyond the
normal adolescent anxieties.
In other words, a fear that causes them to act irrationally or in a dangerous
manner. Diagnosis and Treatment
The first step is to determine what is causing a youngster's unusual
behavior. There are many possible causes, including physical problems. If
the cause is determined to be a mental illness or disorder, treatment may
range from counseling to medication. In most cases, treatment can be done
on an outpatient basis in the child's own community. In rare cases,
hospitalization may be necessary. Treatment also may include counseling for
parents and family.
Fortunately, treatment from both private providers and the state's mental
health system are available. Consult a family physician for a referral to a
mental health provider or contact the Missouri Department of Mental
Health's Division of Comprehensive Psychiatric Services at (800) 364-9687.
The call is toll free.
The state's mental health system provides services regardless of ability to
pay or the amount of insurance coverage available. Charges for the state's
services are based on ability to pay. Further Help
Families of children with possible mental illnesses or emotional disorders do
not have to face the problem alone. A number of support groups and parent
networks are available in Missouri. Among these are:
- Missouri Statewide Parent Advisory Network, (314) 388-3180
- Missouri Coalition of Alliances for the Mentally Ill, (314) 634-7727
Having a mental illness is no different than having any other illness.
However, many people are not informed about the causes of mental
illnesses, the success rates of treatment, and the ability of persons who have
or who have had a mental illness to live normal lives. Therefore, some
people look upon mental illness with fear and misconceptions that may lead
them to fear people with mental illnesses or treat them unfairly.
To get beyond this stigma, the Department of Mental Health is constantly
striving to inform the public about mental health and participates in
campaigns such as Children's Mental Health Week each May.