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Mental Health Center

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Mental Illness in Children

How Is Mental Illness in Children Diagnosed? continued...

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.

How Is Mental Illness in Children Treated?

Mental illnesses are like many medical disorders, such as diabetes or heart disease, 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 those used in adults but with different dosing. The most common treatment options used include:

  • Medication: 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 often simply called therapy) 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, might be helpful, especially with young children who might have trouble communicating their thoughts and feelings.

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