According to the Australian mental health support organisation Beyond Blue, 1 in 7 young people aged four to 17 years experience a mental health issue. Unfortunately, 75% of these young people aren’t getting the help they need, with evidence from a study published by JAMA Psychiatry suggesting that poor mental health in children and teenagers leads to a sixfold increase in the likelihood of health, legal, financial and social problems as adults.
Mental well-being is just as essential as physical well-being, but it is often neglected because its symptoms and effects can be subtle. With good mental health, children will grow into resilient adults who can face challenges, build healthy relationships, adapt to change, focus at school/work and generally face life confidently. If you are interested in finding out more about children’s mental health, enrol in an online course on Child Development, behavior and mental health.
Common mental health issues that children face
Children can face all sorts of mental health issues as they grow up. According to recent CDC data, the most common mental disorders in children are anxiety, ADHD, behavioural problems and depression. Numerous social, environmental and behavioural factors affect mental health. By keeping an eye out for these factors and some common signs of poor mental health, parents, educators, health practitioners and childcarers can give vulnerable children the support they need.
According to the Mayo Clinic, some common symptoms of mental health issues in children include:
- Persistent sadness
- Withdrawal from social interactions
- Self-harm or talking about it
- Talking about suicide or death
- Outbursts/extreme irritability
- Erratic or harmful behaviour
- Drastic changes in mood, behaviour or personality
- Changes in eating habits
- Weight loss
- Headaches or stomach aches
- Difficulty concentrating
- Changes in academic performance
- Avoiding or missing school
Social risk factors
There are all sorts of social risk factors that can impact children’s mental health. Just some of these include:
- Social stigma
- History of abuse
- Family dysfunction
- Loss of a parent or loved one
- Lack of close relationships with family members and peers
- Lack of care
- Poor caregiver mental health
- Having multiple Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), such as exposure to substance abuse or domestic violence
- Racial discrimination
- Frequent conflict with parents or caregivers
Having a strong support system and teaching children resilience and emotional coping skills can combat the detrimental impacts of these social risk factors.
All sorts of environmental factors can affect mental health. In particular, the places that children spend a lot of time in can significantly impact their physical and emotional well-being. Some of the environmental facts that play a significant role in children’s mental health include:
- Economic hardship
- Lack of food and poor nutrition
- Living in an unsafe neighbourhood
- Sleep deprivation
- Exposure to smoking
- Exposure to substance abuse
- Generally hazardous school/home conditions
- Moving home/school
Children need to be taught how to engage in behaviours that support their mental health and well-being, and to have these behaviours demonstrated by their parents (or other caregivers). When a child does not receive health behaviour modelling, they are more likely to engage in damaging behaviours like those listed below:
- Engaging in damaging thinking patterns
- Excessive screen time or social media/game/technology use
- Poor sleep schedule/sleep deprivation
- Lack of exercise
- Being isolated and not engaging with friends and activities
- Overworking at school or home/not getting enough downtime
- Poor nutrition
- Smoking or substance use
Improving children’s mental health
Overall health and well-being require a balance of mental, physical, social, emotional and environmental health. If you suspect that a child in your care has one or more of the risk factors listed above, it is important that you keep an eye out for their well-being and address any signs of mental health issues as soon as possible. You should also teach and demonstrate the skills required to manage emotional well-being (like emotional language/literacy, positive coping, problem-solving, stress management and seeking help), and create a safe space where the child feels comfortable to come to you for help. If you suspect that the child needs further support, make sure that you follow up with them regularly to check how they are feeling, and that you promptly take action like arranging a therapist if needed.
With the right emotional toolkit, modelling and support, children with various risk factors and mental health issues can improve their well-being and develop into healthy adults that can face life with confidence.
Copeland WE, Wolke D, Shanahan L, Costello EJ. Adult Functional Outcomes of Common Childhood Psychiatric Problems: A Prospective, Longitudinal Study. JAMA Psychiatry. 2015;72(9):892–899. doi:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.
Christina D. Bethell, Andrew S. Garner, Narangerel Gombojav, Courtney Blackwell, Laurence Heller, Tamar Mendelson, ‘Social and Relational Health Risks and Common Mental Health Problems Among US Children: The Mitigating Role of Family Resilience and Connection to Promote Positive Socioemotional and School-Related Outcomes,
Glenn AL. Using biological factors to individualize interventions for youth with conduct problems: Current state and ethical issues. Int J Law Psychiatry. 2019 Jul-Aug;65:101348. doi: 10.1016/j.ijlp.2018.04.008. Epub 2018 Apr 17. PMID: 29673560.
Adam Mulligan did her degree in psychology at the University of Hertfordshire. She is interested in mental health, wellness, and lifestyle.
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