Your Child’s Been Diagnosed with a Mental Illness—Now What?
At first you thought it was cute that Jimmy wanted to be clean. After all, you practically had to force his older sister to take a bath, brush her teeth, and wash her hands. But then you started to notice that Jimmy was washing his hands so often they started to chap, and you started to get concerned. You talked to the pediatrician who said that it could be an early sign of obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD, and your doc referred you and Jimmy to a child therapist who specializes in mental illness and behavior disorders.
But you now feel overwhelmed that your child has a label, and you aren’t sure where to go from here. Is it something he can outgrow? Will his future quirks or even his questionable behavior be chalked up to his OCD? Will it become an excuse? Will this diagnosis change as his brain and body changes and grows? Will he get worse? And if other kids or parents find out about the diagnosis will he be treated differently than other children?
Facts You Should Know
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, over four million children and adolescents in the United States “suffer from a serious mental disorder that causes significant functional impairments at home, at school and with peers. Of children ages 9 to 17, 21 percent have a diagnosable mental or addictive disorder that causes at least minimal impairment.”
But that said, only 20-percent of children with mental disorders are identified and receive mental health services, according to the U.S. Public Health Service, “Report of the Surgeon General’s Conference on Children’s Mental Health: A National Action Agenda.”
Untreated mental health problems have been linked to suicide, school failure, crime and higher health care utilization as adults. Early identification, evaluation and treatment, says the National Alliance on Mental Illness, leads to better success in school and better social development, and it lessens the impact of long-term disability caused by mental illness.
The Mayo Clinic website lists these warning signs that your child could have a mental illness:
- Mood changes
- Intense feelings
- Behavior changes
- Difficulty concentrating
- Unexplained weight loss
- Physical harm
- Substance Abuse
First, consult your medical professionals and your child’s teacher (is your child exhibiting the same warning signs while at school, with his or her peers, etc.?). The Mayo Clinic says, “Mental health conditions in children are diagnosed and treated based on signs and symptoms and how the condition affects a child's daily life.” Your child may be evaluated by a medical professional, a therapist, a social worker or a behavior therapist based on criteria in The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) — a guide published by the American Psychiatric Association that explains the signs and symptoms that mark mental health conditions.
If your child is diagnosed with a mental illness, talk therapy or cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to help him change his behavior and outlook will probably be prescribed. Psychotropic medications may also be prescribed. These will affect the brain chemicals related to mood and behavior. If meds are included as part of the treatment, the doctor will monitor your child closely as though many of the drugs are FDA-approved for children many of the side effects or long-term affects are still unknown. You may also need to go to therapy to learn how to manage your child’s behavior and to provide your child with the necessary understanding and guidance.
In addition to therapy, family and child-specific support groups are important ways for all of you to feel like you are not alone as you go on this journey together. Caring for a child with mental illness can be trying for parents and difficult on siblings. The diagnosis and its treatment can add stress on a family. A study called “Impact of family burden and affective response on clinical outcome among patients with bipolar disorder” showed that if the caregivers are feeling stressed, the loved one had a more difficult time sticking to the treatment plan. That’s why support groups can be crucial for the whole family.
Working With Your Child’s School
And don’t forget to work with your child’s school to help facilitate his success there. “Start by speaking with your child's teacher, school counselor, school nurse, or the school's parent organization. These professionals can help you get an evaluation started. Also, each state has a Parent Training and Information Center and a Protection and Advocacy Agency that can help you request the evaluation,” says the National Institutes of Health’s document “Treatment of Children with Mental Illness”. The one in Pennsylvania is run by The PEAL Center on Penn Avenue in Pittsburgh. “The evaluation must be conducted by a team of professionals who assess all areas related to the suspected disability using a variety of tools and measures,” says the NIH.
Depending on the severity of your child’s mental illness, she or he may be entitled to special education classes, under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act. The special program is often called an IEP or Individualized Education Plan and under the law the school has 30 days to create an IEP if one is required for your child.
At the start of each school year and with each new teacher, you may need to inform the teacher(s) of your child’s mental illness.
A diagnosis when a child is young isn’t necessarily a life sentence, according to the National Institutes of Health. “Some children will get better with time. But other children will need ongoing professional help….Treatment will produce better results when started early.”
Mental disorders that affect children (from mayoclinic.org):
- Anxiety disorder
- Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder
- Eating disorders
- Mood disorders