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Could your child have a mental illness?

Published on: March 05, 2011

Patti Skelton-McGouganBy Patti Skelton-McGougan, executive director of Youth Eastside Services.

It seems every week we read or hear about another person who has lost touch with reality and responded with a violent act. So often it involves an adolescent or young adult. Details of the individual's life often reveal a pattern of behaviors that might have seemingly been signs this was coming. But in reality, hindsight is always 20/20.

Parents often ask us, "Is my child going to go off the deep end?" In fact, 20 percent of children have a mental health problem, but only about 5-10 percent will have severe mental illness. The exact cause of mental illness is not known, but research suggests that it’s a combination of factors, including heredity, biology, psychological trauma and environmental stresses.

Ideally, it's best to treat kids as early as possible for mental illness, but the truth is it's hard to spot problems, and parents are often in denial. Here are some telltale signs that should be evaluated by a mental health professional if you see any of them in your child:

  • Decline in school performance or poor grades despite strong efforts
  • Excessive worry or anxiety
  • Repeated refusal to go to school or take part in normal children's activities
  • Hyperactivity or fidgeting
  • Persistent nightmares
  • Ongoing disobedience or aggression
  • Frequent temper tantrums or outbursts of anger
  • Extended depression, sadness or irritability
  • Inability to make or maintain friendships
  • Spending extensive time alone
  • Hearing voices or seeing things that are not there
  • Substance abuse

Ensuring your child’s emotional as well as physical needs are met is important to strong psychological development. Be sure they feel unconditional love and offer frequent words of encouragement. Provide safe and secure environment, but also give them opportunities to play with other children. Provide appropriate guidance and discipline and be a good role model for the behavior you want to see in your child. And if your family has experienced a death or illness of a close family member, severe financial distress, divorce or other significant family events or trauma, get your child appropriate counseling.

Don't be afraid to ask for help. Health Insurers in Washington State all offer at least some mental health benefits and organizations like Youth Eastside Services offer resources specifically geared for the needs of youth and parents, regardless of ability to pay.

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