There is a lot of talk lately about mental health, and for good reason. The pandemic has created a sort of perfect storm of opportunity for mental health issues to blossom: isolation, fear and hopelessness. Children’s mental health has been impacted as well.
The CDC reported that between March and October of 2020, mental health related emergency visits for kids between the ages of 5 and 11 and 12 and 17 rose by 24% and 31% respectively.
But this is not a new problem. From 2003 to 2012, depression and anxiety among children aged 6-17 increased by 3%. Many professionals suspect that 80% of all children suffering from anxiety and 60% of those suffering with depression are not in treatment.
If your child is struggling with mental health issues, they are not alone.
This post will address the importance of early intervention, what to watch out for, and what you can do about it.
The importance of early mental health intervention
Studies investigating the effects of depression and anxiety on the brain have challenged the “chemical imbalance” theory behind mental health issues. Researchers have found that depression and anxiety can actually alter the size of certain parts of our brains that are involved in emotional well-being. For instance, ongoing depression can reduce the size of the brain that is associated with learning and emotions (the hippocampus). The amount the area shrinks is related to the severity and length of the depressive episode. Researchers have also found that the part of the brain that reacts to fear stimulus (the amygdala) enlarges when depression is accompanied by anxiety. Treatment can stop and even reverse these trends.
Even in very young children, early intervention is associated with positive long-term outcomes. You can read my previous article on PCIT for more information on this empirically supported treatment method for very young children.
Many parents struggle with feelings of guilt or fear of stigma when it comes to their children’s mental health. This can prevent them from seeking help early on when it is most effective.
Signs your child needs mental health treatment
Below are some warning signs that you can watch out for in your children with regard to their mental health. Keep in mind that occasional mood swings, anxiety and irritability are well within the normal range for many children. Pre-teens and teens are particularly susceptible for emotional lability due to fluctuating hormones and the physical demands of growing so rapidly. What you want to watch for are dramatic changes and anything that impacts day-to-day functioning.
- Increased anger and/or irritability
- Difficulty sleeping or staying asleep
- Lethargy and excessive sleeping
- Loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities
- Changes in mood
- Changes in eating habits
- Withdrawal from social or family activities
- Self-harm or increasingly risky behavior
- Changes in academic performance
- Taking of suicide or wishing he was dead
Ultimately, you know your child best and will know what is outside the normal range. Just one word of caution, if you child has “always” been anxious or depressed, it might be harder to spot an increase in symptoms. Even children who are described as melancholy or “a worrier” can benefit from counseling. It can help them learn skills on how to verbalize and cope with the feelings they have. As we learned above, early intervention is best.
Tips on seeking children’s mental health treatment
First of all, take a deep breath. It is going to be okay. Ask God to give you wisdom and direction as you seek to secure the right help for your child.
If you don’t know where to start, here are a few ideas. Ask your pastor. He or she may have information regarding Christian counselors in your area who treat children. You can also check with your pediatrician. They can provide an assessment and possible medication if the situation warrants it. The pediatrician should also have a list of providers in your area. Another option is Psychology Today. It has an online database of therapists. You can search based on location, issues to be addressed and even insurance coverage. In all cases, a phone call to assess a “goodness of fit” with the counselor is appropriate.
Once you find a provider, you may have to wait for an appointment. Prior to the pandemic, there was a nation-wide shortage of child and family therapists. Demand has only increased, so it might be helpful to anticipate a lag between seeking treatment and securing an appointment.
There are some things you can do in the meantime. If you haven’t already, talk to your child’s school counselor. School counselors typically don’t provide ongoing treatment (unless your school has a school-based health clinic), but they can provide support to your child during the day to help them manage in the school environment. Having a safe place to go during the day is a relief for many children.
You may also consider purchasing a book or workbook to help address the issue that your child is facing. You can search your favorite online book retailer for options. Unless your child is a teen, don’t just hand the book to them and walk away. Do it together. Regardless, be sure to check in with your child daily. Pray with them and let him know that you are available to talk whenever they need to. And make sure that you are.
Encourage your child to exercise and limit screen time. Schedule a daily family walk and trade in the devices for an old-fashioned game of Monopoly.