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Mental Illness in Children

What Are the Symptoms of Mental Illness in Children?

Symptoms in children vary depending on the type of mental illness, but some of the general symptoms include:

  • Abuse of drugs and/or alcohol
  • Inability to cope with daily problems and activities
  • Changes in sleeping and/or eating habits
  • Excessive complaints of physical ailments
  • Defying authority, skipping school, stealing, or damaging property
  • Intense fear of gaining weight
  • Long-lasting negative moods, often accompanied by poor appetite and thoughts of death
  • Frequent outbursts of anger
  • Changes in school performance, such as getting poor grades despite good efforts
  • Loss of interest in friends and activities they usually enjoy
  • Significant increase in time spent alone
  • Excessive worrying or anxiety
  • Hyperactivity
  • Persistent nightmares or night terrors
  • Persistent disobedience or aggressive behavior
  • Frequent temper tantrums
  • Hearing voices or seeing things that are not there (hallucinations)

What Causes Mental Disorders in Children?

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

  • Heredity (genetics): Many mental disorders run in families, suggesting that the disorders, or more accurately, a vulnerability to the disorders, might be passed on from parents to children through genes.
  • 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 might 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 disorders.
  • Psychological trauma: Some mental disorders might be triggered by psychological trauma, such as severe emotional, physical, or sexual abuse; an important early loss, such as the loss of a parent; and neglect.
  • Environmental stress: Stressful or traumatic events can trigger a disorder in a person with a vulnerability to a mental disorder.

How Is Mental Illness in Children Diagnosed?

As with adults, mental disorders in children are diagnosed based on signs and symptoms; however, diagnosing mental illness in children can be especially difficult. Many behaviors that are seen as symptoms of mental disorders, such as shyness, anxiety (nervousness), strange eating habits, and outbursts of temper, 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 life.

If symptoms are present, the doctor will begin an evaluation by performing a complete medical and developmental history and physical exam. Although there are no lab tests to specifically diagnose mental disorders, the doctor might use various diagnostic tests, such as neuroimaging 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, health care 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 a diagnosis on reports of the child's symptoms and 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. The doctor then determines if the child's symptoms point to a specific mental disorder.

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