MANY parents still believe mental illnesses are afflictions of adulthood and children who exercise deviant behaviours are merely experiencing emotions that are consistent with typical child development.
But clinical psychologist Dr Pearnel Bell says this is not always so. She reasons that mental illnesses do not discriminate and children — infants and toddlers included — can experience a range of mental conditions.
“It was once thought that children did not have mental disorders, especially psychotic disorders. But children can develop the same mental health conditions as adults; the only difference is that their symptoms may manifest differently,” Dr Bell argued.
She pointed out, however, that with children in a constant state of physical and mental development, identifying these signs can sometimes be challenging for parents who are not equipped to know what to look for.
“It may be difficult for parents to identify mental illness in a child. Many parents simply do not know the signs of mental illness and the truth is it is difficult because some of the behaviours may appear in a child who does not have a mental illness,” Dr Bell explained.
She said that while the signs of mental illness in children vary by age and type of illness, there are a number of warning signs which often transcend all categories. Below Dr Bell tells what are some clear giveaways:
• Often losing temper.
• Arguing with adults.
• Actively defying or refusing to comply with adults' requests or rules.
• Deliberately annoying people and blaming others for his/her mistakes or misbehaviour
• Being touchy or easily annoyed by others, and being angry, resentful, spiteful and vindictive.
• Deliberately injuring others.
• Destroying property.
• Setting fires.
• Cruel to animals and smaller children.
• Forcing others into unwanted sexual activities.
•Carrying out revenge on those who try to correct them.
Also look out for:
The child manifests feelings of sadness or withdrawal that last at least two weeks, or severe mood swings that cause problems in relationships at home or school.
Presents with feelings of overwhelming fear for no reason — sometimes with a racing heart or fast breathing — or worries or fears intense enough to interfere with daily activities.
These include drastic changes in behaviour or personality, as well as dangerous or out-of-control behaviour. Also, there may be fighting frequently, using weapons, and expressing a desire to badly hurt others.
Sometimes a mental health condition leads to self-injury, also called self-harm, or harming others. Children with a mental health condition also may develop suicidal thoughts or actually attempt suicide.
Dr Bell encouraged parents that, once they suspect that their child may be suffering from a mental illness, they should take the child to see a psychologist/psychiatrist so that they can be properly assessed. This way, she said, the child may be enrolled in a system where they can be taught how to cope and can receive the appropriate treatment for their condition.
“There are guidance clinics across Jamaica where children can be assessed, diagnosed and treated. So the child will be exposed to psychotherapy, appropriate medication if they decide the child needs this, or they may go the route of combination therapy which is more common. It is, however, important that parents understand that they should not be afraid to seek help because it is the only way to do right by your child,” Dr Bell advised.
She said that too often parents ignore the signs of mental illness in their children out of fear of the stigma attached to mental illness, noting that an undiagnosed child who is robbed of the opportunity of being treated is more likely to express him or herself in a way that could cause the parent(s) shame.
She said that with appropriate support, you will give your child the best opportunity of not only thriving but leading a normal, happy, healthy life.