elementary school child in front of laptop doing remote learningChildren’s Mental Health Day is approaching, making it an excellent time to consider the importance of the topic and the effect that COVID-19 has had on it. A child’s mental health is as important as their physical health. The two are often entwined. Also, a child’s or teen’s untreated mental health condition will not magically disappear as they age. These children are more likely to have trouble in school, problems with the criminal justice system, a need for social services, and an increased rate of suicide. The issues can follow them into adulthood and potentially get worse. The medical community, parents, and teachers need to give this issue the attention that it deserves.

Most Common Children’s Mental Health Issues

According to the CDC, mental disorders in children are “serious changes in the way children typically learn, behave, or handle their emotions, causing distress and problems getting through the day.” These mental health conditions include ADHD, anxiety, and behavior disorders. Doctors most commonly diagnose:

  • ADHS – 9.4% of children 2 – 17.
  • Behavior problem – 7.4% of children 2 -17.
  • Anxiety – 7.1% of children 2 – 17
  • Depression – 3.2% of children 3 -17.

Medical professionals diagnose some children with multiple disorders. For instance, of children age 3 – 17 with depression, 73.8% also have anxiety, and nearly half have behavioral problems.

The rate of depression and anxiety has increased in recent years, going up several percentage points since 2007. These children’s mental health statistics are a genuine cause for concern.

COVID-19’s Effect on Children’s Mental Health

Although we will not know the full effect of the pandemic’s impact on children for some time, mental health experts have already identified alarming trends. The most significant is the rise in teenage suicide pre-pandemic.

Teen suicides were at a record high when the pandemic hit, with rates rising every year since 2007. Sadly, suicide is the second leading cause of death for those aged 10 – 24. And mental health professionals have noted an increase in depression, isolation, and trauma experienced by teens during the pandemic. Teens who already felt isolated and cut off from others had those factors multiplied during the last 15 months.

So far, however, the data does not show that the teen suicide rate has increased despite the anecdotal evidence. Still, teens are under immense pressure during this time, and their mental health issues need close attention.

Monitoring Your Child’s Mental Health

You may find it difficult to distinguish between your child’s normal emotional reactions and those that need attention. Mental health experts have identified the following symptoms as potential signs of mental health issues:

Elementary Age Children

young child depressed on his birthday in front of his cake

The most frequent signs of mental illness in children include:

  1. Two or more weeks of sadness
  2. Avoiding social interactions
  3. Extreme irritability
  4. Mood swings
  5. Sleep problems
  6. Falling grades
  7. Headaches and stomachaches
  8. Avoiding school
  9. Harming oneself
  10. Loss of weight
  11. Talk about death and suicide

Younger children often have difficulty articulating their feelings, so watching for symptoms is an excellent precaution.

 

Teenagers

Teenager with black hoodie and black eye talking to children's mental health professional

The signs of mental health issues in teens are similar to those of younger children, but their manifestations may differ.

  1. Sleep habit changes – Teens may have insomnia or want to sleep excessively. They may also choose to stay up all night and sleep during the day.
  2. Quitting usual activities – If your soccer player suddenly leaves the team or your social butterfly stops hanging out with friends, they may have a problem.
  3. Significant changes in school performance – If your teen goes from being a B student to a D student, mental health issues may be the reason.
  4. Weight changes – Rapid weight changes may be a sign of an eating disorder. Depression leads to weight changes as well.
  5. Mood swings – Teenagers often have mood swings due to hormonal changes. But excessive anger and extreme irritability may be signs of a mental illness.
  6. Isolation and secrecy – If your teen self-isolates and practices excessive secrecy, they may have a mental issue.

If you have concerns about your child, use this symptom checker to guide you.

children's mental health online symptom checker

What To Do If Your Child Shows Symptoms

father eating breakfast with daughter and son talking about children's mental health

Talking to your child is always a good first step, but if you have concerns about their mental health, consult their doctor. It’s also a good idea to talk to your child’s teachers, caregivers, and close friends to see if they have noticed changes in the way your child behaves. Then, decide if your child needs to see a mental health professional.

You can choose from various children’s mental health services, including talk therapy, cognitive behavior therapy, child psychiatry services, etc. You can also contact your local family services organizations for help and national organizations such as the American Academy of Pediatrics. Most states offer help in this area as well. For instance, Illinois has created the SASS program (Screening, Assessment and Support Services) for children suffering mental health crises.

What Healthy Activities Should Children Be Doing?

mother and child do yoga to strengthen child's mental health

Many adults have embraced mindfulness to cope with their own emotions, and the practice works for teens and children. Yoga has proven to lessen anxiety in participants of all ages, and it improves physical health, a key component in mental health. Too much screen time and not enough outdoor time can affect your child’s mood and behavior.

You can also engage your child with games that promote mental health and wellbeing. Your teens may not appreciate the games, but spending one-on-one time with them can be helpful. You should not let your child isolate from the family if at all possible.

What Should the Community Be Doing?

6 elementary school age children playing outside at community center to improve children's mental health

Children’s mental health is an issue that affects the entire community. That’s why the community should take action to protect children’s mental health.

For instance, the nature of school has changed with an increased focus on testing and academic achievement at a young age. Children as young as five or six can feel the strain and develop increasing anxiety and depression. Local schools should put curriculums in place that are balanced and celebrate play as well as books.

Once the pandemic is over, teenagers need more centers where they can safely hang out with friends, engage in physical activity, and get academic tutoring if needed. The community can and should take some of the strain off of parents and the educational system.

 

Final Thoughts

Children’s mental health will improve when it gets the attention it deserves. No one believes that a broken leg will fix itself. Anxiety, depression, and behavioral disorders will not either.

 

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