There are lots of myths and misconceptions about children and mental illness. Here are a few:
- Mental illness is something only adults have.
- Being moody is just part of growing up.
- Children are being over-treated and over-medicated for mental problems.
- A child who makes a suicide attempt is just trying to get attention.
In fact, the National Institute of Mental Health reports that as many as 13% of children ages 8 to 15 have at least one mental disorder, a rate comparable to diabetes, asthma, and other childhood diseases. And Kita Curry, Ph.D., president and CEO of Didi Hirsch Mental Health Services – an organization that provides mental health and substance abuse services in several Southern California communities – says half of all mental illness emerges by age 14. Curry also says that as many as half of children who need treatment for mental problems aren’t getting it.
One myth Curry says is actually true: Yes, children who try to kill themselves are trying to get attention. “They are demonstrating how serious their pain is,” she says. “If you had some physical pain and you tried to get attention, people would be asking you, ‘Why didn’t you say something sooner?’” But unlike with physical pain, parents of children with mental illness often don’t help them seek treatment.
Fear of being stigmatized in a society that still doesn’t fully understand mental illness is part of the reason. Curry points out that there was a time when people blamed “the devil” for autism. “When it stopped being the devil who was blamed, it became the parent who was to blame,” she says, even among mental health professionals.
Embarrassment about medications and ignorance about just how treatable these illnesses are also contribute to the problem. “When it comes to medicine for our mind, it’s considered a drug, not a medicine,” Curry says.
What to look for:
- Abrupt changes in your child, i.e. becoming suddenly withdrawn, or having mood swings
- Behaviors that interfere with normal functioning, i.e. phobias about social situations or about leaving the house, or obsessive behaviors
- Disturbing comments such as “nobody likes me” or “ I’m stupid”
- Grades dropping suddenly
What to do about it:
- Talk about it. “Try to open the door,” Curry urges, and find out how your child is feeling.
- Seek help from a mental health professional. Some primary care doctors might be able to help you, or to make a good referral. But the doctor alone can’t provide the counseling component that is essential. Check with your insurance company, and ask if of the psychiatrists on the plan have experience with kids.
- Trust your judgment. Give a new doctor three to four sessions to help. Then, if you don’t feel right about them, look for another. “It’s OK to leave your doctor,” Curry says.
- Be involved. If you have a pre-teen or younger, you should be involved in the treatment. If you aren’t, that’s a problem.
Whatever you do, don’t give up on finding help with for your child. Children with mental problems often take five to 10 years to be diagnosed, according to Curry, and meanwhile their illness is impacting their success in school and their chances of forming friendships and other important relationships.
Didi Hirsch serves primarily families on MediCal. They also have crisis counseling for members of the general public dealing with deaths in the family, divorce, natural disaster or other trauma. They have a 24-hour suicide prevention crisis line – 877-7-CRISIS –for people considering suicide, and people who are worried about someone and don’t know what to do. They organization also offers support groups for people who have lost someone to suicide, who are often stigmatized in other grief counseling groups.
Volunteer opportunities are available, including the chance to be trained to help with their suicide crisis line. Reach them at www.DidiHirsch.org.
Tags: mental illness