Recognizing and treating mental health issues in school-age children

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The new fall clothes and sneakers have been purchased, notebooks have been organized and kids throughout the region have settled into what families hope will be a successful new school year. However, according to the latest statistics, one in five children ages 13 to 18, or 20 percent of youth in this age group, have or will have a serious mental illness — causing significant functional impairment in their day-to-day lives in school, at home and with peers.  Childhood mental disorders include a range of disorders that can be diagnosed and begin in childhood, including attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), Tourette syndrome, behavior disorders, mood and anxiety disorders, autism spectrum disorders and substance use disorders, among others.     

Recognizing and treating mental health disorders in school-age children and adolescents at the start of the school year is a critical issues for parents. Children do not learn at their best when experiencing mental illness or when overwhelmed by life’s stressors — which can result in significant problems in keeping up in the classroom. And although experts say half of all lifetime cases of mental disorders begin by age 14, there are often long delays in seeking help — with the average delay between the onset of symptoms and intervention being eight to 10 years. For children and adolescents in school, this delay in being diagnosed, and properly treated, can wreak havoc on their school performance — statistics also show that approximately 50 percent of students age 14 and older suffering from a mental illness drop out of high school, the highest dropout rate of any disability group.    

 “There are many children and teens in our community who may be showing the early warning signs of various mental health disorders, but whose parents and caregivers might not know what they should be looking for in terms of early symptoms that may signal a diagnosable mental health disorder,” says Stephanie Jamison-Void, CEO of Jamison Consultants Behavioral Health Center, a South Carolina licensed provider of rehabilitative behavioral health services to help children, adolescents, teens and families enhance their lives. “Our goal is to help parents understand what is normal child and adolescent behavior, and what signs and symptoms may require further investigation for a possible diagnosis so that they can get the help they need at the early stages, which is when treatment is most effective.”

The encouraging news about mental illness in children is that once properly diagnosed, mental health issues in children are highly treatable. Effective treatment through medication and behavioral health therapies can change lives, and once properly diagnosed, the treatment success rate for children’s mental health disorders is high.    

“It’s important for parents to know that when diagnosed early, mental health disorders in children are treatable through medication and behavioral health therapies,” says Jamison, whose center also provides children’s mental and behavioral health services at facilities on Hilton Head Island and in Bluffton, Beaufort and Holly Hill, and works with both the Beaufort and Jasper county school districts. “Since children often have a hard time expressing their feelings, it’s typically up to adults to identify a mental health issue in their child, so it’s important for parents to be aware of, and look for, the warning signs that a child may need help.”

According to Jamison, the beginning of a new school year is a good time for parents to look closely at their children’s behavior to determine if there is any concern about mental health disorders that can be negatively affecting school performance. “If you think your child may be having a problem, seek help,” she said. “Don’t let fear or the stigma of mental illness prevent you and your child from getting the help they needed to succeed not only in school, but in their everyday lives.”

For more information about children’s mental health, visit www.nami.org. For information about Jamison Consultants Behavioral Health Center and its programs and services, visit www.jamisonconsultants.com.

Know the signs

Warning signs that your child might have a mental health condition include:

  • Mood changes. Look for feelings of sadness or withdrawal that last at least two weeks, or severe mood swings that cause problems in relationships at home or school.
  • Intense feelings. Be aware of feelings of overwhelming fear for no reason — sometimes with a racing heart or fast breathing — or worries or fears intense enough to interfere with daily activities.
  • Behavior changes. Take note of any drastic changes in behavior or personality, as well as dangerous or out-of-control behavior. Fighting frequently, using weapons or expressing a desire to badly hurt others are also warning signs.
  • Difficulty concentrating. Look for signs of trouble focusing or sitting still, both of which might lead to poor performance in school.
  • Unexplained weight loss. A sudden loss of appetite, frequent vomiting or use of laxatives might indicate an eating disorder or mood disorder.
  • Physical harm. Sometimes a mental health condition leads to suicidal thoughts or actual attempts at self-harm or suicide.
  • Substance abuse. Some kids use drugs or alcohol to try to cope with their feelings.

Source: Mayo Clinic