From inconsolable preschoolers to moody teenagers, how do you know if it’s
just a phase or a symptom of mental illness?
“The difficult thing for parents is identifying what is a normal
part of growing up, and what needs intervention,” said Dr. Joyce
Gilbert, medical director of the Sexual Assault Clinic and Child Maltreatment
Center at Providence St. Peter Hospital in Olympia, Wash.
A phase is something that is developmental or temporary, and comes and
goes. On the other hand, mental illness is something that does not dissipate.
If a child is not overcoming a “phase” then parents, teachers,
physicians and others should ask why and engage with resources early to
ensure the child gets the help needed. Mental illness can happen to anyone
at any age, and in fact, one in five children suffers with mental health
conditions such as anxiety, difficulty focusing and social challenges.
Half of all lifetime mental illnesses begin by age 14; brushing off issues
as a phase kids and teens will eventually grow out of can lead to other
problems later in life.
Early intervention is key
“Most of the time, the first signs of mental health issues occur
in preschool or kindergarten, when children are surrounded by other children,”
said Felisha White, RN, Psychiatric Center for Children and Adolescents
at Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center in Spokane, Wash. “At
that point, it becomes clear to their teachers and their parents that
they aren’t behaving like their peers.”
For older children, White suggests watching for sudden behavioral changes,
such as angry outbursts, declining grades, isolation from friends, or
disruptions in normal sleeping, eating and hygiene habits.
How to get help
Unfortunately, referral information and resources for children who need
psychiatric care are limited, leaving many families with nowhere to turn
for help. The first, most accessible resource is to turn to a child’s
pediatrician for help. Also, parents and children alike should be educated
about how to manage their conditions, navigate challenges and be aware
of their legal rights. Parents should talk with the child’s school
or pediatrician to understand the resources available.
“Most parents don’t know they are entitled to educational support
and accommodations made for their child at school,” Felisha added.
Our commitment to build resilience in children and families
In many of the communities Providence St. Joseph Health serves, we provide
some of the only available pediatric psychiatry beds, care and services.
It is this unmet need, with such a vulnerable population that is directing
the Providence St. Joseph Health Mental Health and Wellness Institute
to focus on building resilience for children, teens and their families.
Together, we will work to build connections to resources in the community,
collaborate with schools and improve care for this vulnerable population.
This is the newest article in a series that debunks mental health myths
and discusses Providence St. Joseph Health's efforts to improve mental
health care in the communities we serve.
Debunking Mental Health Myths - Myth: Mental Illness Often Leads to Violent
and Dangerous Behavior
Debunking Mental Health Myths - Myth: You Can Just "Snap Out of It"
Sources: National Alliance for Mental Illness; National Institute for Mental Health