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Anxiety & Panic Disorders Health Center

Mental Illness in Children

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What Causes Mental Illness?

The exact cause of most mental illnesses is not known, but research suggests that a combination of factors, including heredity, biology, psychological trauma, and environmental stress, may be involved.

  • Heredity (genetics): Mental illness tends to run in families, which means the likelihood to develop a mental disorder may be passed on from parents to their children.
  • Biology: Some mental disorders have been linked to special chemicals in the brain called neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters help nerve cells in the brain communicate with each other. If these chemicals are out of balance or not working properly, messages may not make it through the brain correctly, leading to symptoms. In addition, defects in or injury to certain areas of the brain also have been linked to some mental illnesses.
  • Psychological trauma: Some mental illnesses may be triggered by psychological trauma, such as 
    • severe emotional, physical, or sexual abuse
    • an important early loss, such as the loss of a parent
    • neglect -- both emotional and physical
  • Environmental stress: Stressful or traumatic events can trigger a mental illness in a person with a vulnerability to a mental disorder.

 

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.

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