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Learn the Warning Signs of Mental Illness in Children, Teens

Monday, May 11, 2020

Older child or teen sitting by a window. Learn the signs of mental illness during Mental Health Month.Children, like adults, are susceptible to depression and anxiety during the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. Even before the pandemic began claiming lives and jobs, and upending routines, one in six children in the U.S. struggled with a mental health disorder each year, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. 

During Mental Health Month, NewBridge Services encourages parents to learn warning signs for mental illness in children.

“It’s natural for children to worry sometimes, but not for that worry to mushroom into overwhelming anxiety,” said NewBridge Services CEO Michelle Borden, a licensed clinical social worker.

“It’s so important to get a child help early, so more serious problems don’t follow them into adulthood,” Borden said. Half of all lifetime cases of mental illness begin by age 14, 75% by age 24, according to NAMI.

Warning Signs

Disrupted routines can, in themselves, cause behavioral problems, and establishing a new normal is key. The National Institute of Mental Health said the following behaviors may signal a mental disorder:

  • Changes in appetite
  • Changes in sleep 
  • Social withdrawal
  • Developing new fears
  • Regressing (e.g., resuming bedwetting)
  • Becoming upset
  • Self-Harm
  • Ongoing thoughts of death

Children who are putting their safety at risk, or who talk about wanting to hurt themselves or others should be evaluated immediately.

Young children

Parents of a young child should consider seeking an evaluation if he/she:

  • Has frequent tantrums or is intensely irritable much of the time
  • Talks often about fears or worries
  • Complains about frequent stomachaches or headaches with no known medical cause
  • Moves constantly
  • Sleeps too much or too little, or have frequent nightmares
  • Shows no interest in playing with other children
  • Struggles academically (though distance learning may be the culprit)
  • Repeats actions many times out of fear of something bad happening.

Older Children/Teens

An evaluation may be in order for an older child/teen who:

  • Sleeps much more or far less than usual
  • Withdraws from friends or family, and/or lose interest in activities
  • Frets about weight gain/diet or exercise excessively
  • Engages in self-harm behaviors (e.g., cutting or burning their skin)
  • Smokes, drinks alcohol, or uses drugs
  • Engages in risky or destructive behavior alone or with friends
  • Contemplates suicide
  • Experiences periods of highly elevated activity, and require much less sleep than usual
  • Expresses belief that someone is trying to control their mind/hears voices others cannot

If you suspect your child is struggling with anxiety over COVID-19, talk to them, and answer their questions at their level of understanding. Limit exposure to news coverage, including social media. With older children, share how you cope with stress. Let them know it’s OK to feel upset. Get the family in a daily routine.

If worrisome behaviors persist for weeks, get help. NewBridge’s licensed clinicians are conducting telehealth counseling sessions; call (973) 316-9333 to schedule an appointment. (NewBridge accepts most insurances.)

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© 2020 Newbridge Services. E-mail And Voicemail Cannot Replace Counseling.