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Mental Illness in Childhood

Scientists say that the roots of mental illness are present earlier than suspected in children. With more sophisticated ways of studying the brain, we have become knowledgeable of the early stages of mental illnesses particularly those that begin early in life and persist into adulthood. Mental illness is a major factor in the lifespan of children particularly in adolescence and in older children on the cusp of becoming an adult. Population-based surveys and public health surveillance are available guides to understanding the magnitude of mental illness in children. In one analysis, Younger (pdf) noted that up to 20% of children age 12-17 were at risk for a mental health disorder. Up to 28% of high school children reported feeling so sad or hopeless every day for two weeks or more that they stopped their usual activities, while 3% of high school children surveyed had suffered a major depressive episode. With a national childhood suicide rate of 4.5 per 100,000, alone makes mental illness a national priority.

Clues to the presence of a possible mental illness are a departure from the expected cognitive, social and emotional child development. Family members, friends, teachers and health professionals that recognize these signs in a given child need to sound an alarm for help. Promoting the successful management of difficulties associated with mental illness early in its onset favorably affects a child’s mental and physical health, and the sequela of maladaptive behaviors later in life. Once mental illness develops, it can become a regular part of a child’s behavior and more difficult to treat.

A pediatric psychiatric and neurologic evaluation and neuropsychological evaluation may lead to clues to the presence of apparent precipitating factors or associated metabolic, immunologic, infectious and post-infectious autoimmune disturbances. The treatment of childhood mental illness has advanced along well-established pathways. However, such disorders are always most effectively managed when there is adequate access to treatment services.