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Mental Illness in Children

How Is Mental Illness in Children Diagnosed?

As with adults, mental illnesses in children are diagnosed based on signs and symptoms that suggest a particular disorder. However, this process can be especially challenging with children. Many behaviors that are seen as symptoms of mental disorders, such as shyness, anxiety (nervousness), strange eating habits, and temper tantrums, can occur as a normal part of a child's development. Behaviors become symptoms when they occur very often, last a long time, occur at an unusual age or cause significant disruption to the child's and/or family's ability to function.

If symptoms are present, the doctor will begin an evaluation by performing a complete medical history and physical exam. Although there are no lab tests to specifically diagnose mental disorders, the doctor may use various tests, such as X-rays and blood tests, to rule out physical illness or medication side effects as the cause of the symptoms.

If no physical illness is found, the child may be referred to a child and adolescent psychiatrist or psychologist, mental health professionals who are specially trained to diagnose and treat mental illness in children and teens. Psychiatrists and psychologists use specially designed interview and assessment tools to evaluate a child for a mental disorder. The doctor bases his or her diagnosis on reports of the child's symptoms and his or her observation of the child's attitude and behavior. The doctor often must rely on reports from the child's parents, teachers, and other adults because children often have trouble explaining their problems or understanding their symptoms.

How Is Mental Illness in Children Treated?

Mental illnesses are like many medical disorders that require ongoing treatment. Although much progress has been made in the treatment of adults with mental disorders, the treatment of children is not as well understood. Experts are still exploring which treatments work best for which conditions in children. For now, many of the treatment options used for children, including many medications, are the same as what is used to treat adults. The most common treatment options used include:

  • Medication: Many mental illnesses can be effectively treated with medications in combination with therapy. The drugs often used to treat mental disorders in children include antipsychotics, antidepressants, anti-anxiety drugs, stimulants, and mood stabilizing drugs.
  • Psychotherapy: Psychotherapy (a type of counseling) addresses the emotional response to mental illness. It is a process in which trained mental health professionals help people deal with their illness, often by talking through strategies for understanding and dealing with their symptoms, thoughts, and behaviors. Types of psychotherapy often used with children are supportive, cognitive behavioral, interpersonal, group, and family therapy.
  • Creative therapies: Certain therapies, such as art therapy or play therapy, may be helpful, especially with young children who may have trouble communicating their thoughts and feelings.

WebMD Medical Reference

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