We like to think that childhood is free from worry or care, but the fact is that mental health issues are present for approximately 25% of children every year. The most common issues are depression, anxiety, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Autism, although less common than these three issues, is another significant mental health issue in children.
Affecting nearly 186,000 people under the age of 20 annually, clinical depression is much deeper than feeling low or being sad. Kids with depression experience intense sadness, sensitivity to the world around them, and both a heightened awareness of the ill in the world and a dampened sense of joy. The symptoms of depression in children can range from irritability and anger to low self-esteem and extremely low energy. Kids with depression may withdraw from friends and family and express feelings of hopelessness or helplessness. Additionally, changes in sleep patterns (from insomnia to extreme fatigue and anything in between) and appetite (no appetite to a voracious appetite) may indicate depression in kids.
In addition to their difficult mental state, kids with depression may also suffer from physical pain. Their bodies are tense and stressed for prolonged periods of time, and they may slump into themselves or remain inactive. This constant tension and improper alignment of their bodies can lead to back and neck pain as well as joint soreness and stiffness.
Anxiety in kids affects the body and mind in much the same way as depression does. Children who suffer from anxiety may experience panic attacks when their intense worry becomes overwhelming. They can feel shortness of breath, tightening in their chest, and physical pain as they panic and tense their muscles. Kids with anxiety may engage in compulsive and repetitious activities, they may be withdrawn and quiet, or they may have explosive temper tantrums.
Although most anxiety sufferers in the U.S. are adults, kids with anxiety-related disorders like obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) are generally diagnosed by age 10, and 5-10% of all kids are diagnosed with anxiety or an anxiety-related disorder before age 20. Some anxiety is normal in childhood and adolescence, but those children who suffer from a diagnosed anxiety disorder struggle to function in their daily lives. They may also experience physical pain from the same source as children with depression: tense muscles and inactivity. In addition, anxious children may suffer pain or injury from repetitive or impulsive motions.
Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder may bring together elements of the above, with a twist: an inability to sit still to focus and concentrate. Kids with ADHD are much more likely to be diagnosed with anxiety in higher numbers than those without ADHD, and it makes sense. As the demands of school increase, so do the demands outside of school. Kids are overscheduled, and free play has nearly disappeared. This, in combination with a sharp decrease in the amount of physical activity kids get daily, results in children who have excess energy and an inability to focus their attention.
Symptoms of ADHD include distractibility, inability to pay attention to small details, and lack of focus for an extended period of time. The hyperactive aspect of this disorder contributes to kids who are unable to “settle down” and may be constantly fidgeting. Kids may be unable to play quietly and may feel the need to constantly get up and move around. This constant movement results in overstressed muscles and joints. The movement is usually short and sharp instead of fluid and in a full range of motion, and kids may be exhausted yet still unable to relax.
The three mental health issues above may be caused by a number of different things, including trauma, genetics, and body chemistry, or a combination of the three. It can be difficult for parents looking to narrow the cause down to one specific thing, but it is important to try to understand each disorder and look for treatments that are comprehensive.
Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is another less common but no less impactful mental health issue for children.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, this disorder affects nearly one in 110 children annually, with most children diagnosed by age two. Genetics play a large role in autism, but as with the other disorders there is no one proven cause. As indicated by the name, kids with ASD can have symptoms that range from being completely nonverbal and non-communicative to having some trouble with social cues and following “acceptable” social norms. Kids with autism may display repetitive physical motions, such as rocking or compulsively ordering blocks or other objects, or they may have verbal tics.
Boys are more likely than girls to be diagnosed with ASD, and although there has been an increase in ASD prevalence, it is difficult to say if it is a true increase or simply better diagnostic tools. Regardless, children and young adults with ASD can also experience physical issues from repetitive motion and self-injury. This mental health issue, like the others above, comes with the potential for physical pain in addition to the mental challenges.
Tell us your story: Has your child or a child you know been faced with a mental health issue?
Image by Rachel Ramos via Flickr