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Mental Illness in Children

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 medications often used to treat mental disorders in children include antipsychotics (neuroleptics), 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.

What Are the Side Effects of Treatment for a Mental Illness?

Different medications have different side effects, and some children are not able to tolerate certain drugs. Although the medications used to treat mental disorders in children are generally considered safe, the doctor might need to change drugs or dosages to minimize side effects. It may take some trial and error to find the medications that work best for an individual child.

What Is the Outlook for Children With Mental Disorders?

Without treatment, many mental disorders can continue into adulthood and lead to problems in all areas of the person's adult life. People with untreated mental disorders are at high risk for many problems, including alcohol or drug abuse, and (depending on the type of disorder) violent or self-destructive behavior, even suicide.

When treated appropriately and early, many children can fully recover from their mental disorder or successfully control their symptoms. Although some children become disabled adults because of a chronic or severe disorder, many people who experience a mental illness are able to live full and productive lives.

What Research Is Being Done on Mental Disorders in Children?

To date, most research on mental illness has centered on adults. However, the mental health community has now begun to focus on mental illness in children. Researchers are looking at childhood development in terms of what is normal and abnormal, trying to understand how factors affecting development can have an impact on mental health. The goal is to try to predict, and ultimately, prevent, developmental problems that could lead to mental illness. A key part of this research is the identification of risk factors that increase a child's chances of developing a mental disorder. In addition, the mental health community is calling for additional research on medications used to treat children with mental disorders.

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