If we have experienced significant childhood trauma and find ourselves having mental health problems in adulthood as a result, it is quite possible that our psychiatric condition was already apparent, or, at least, had started to become apparent, during our childhood. Indeed, at any one time, about 1 in 4 children will be experiencing mental health difficulties.
What are the most common types of mental illness that occur during childhood?
The most common mental illnesses that are experienced by children are as follows :
– depression; this affects about 2% of pre-adolescents and up to 20% of adolescents at any one time
– anxiety; click here to read my article about childhood anxiety
– alcohol/drug misuse
– hyperactive attention-deficit disorder (ADHD); this affects about 10% of children (it is argued by some that it is, however, over-diagnosed)
– separation anxiety click here (to read my article about this)
Also, less commonly, young people can experience incipient psychotic conditions ( a psychotic condition is one in which the individual loses touch with reality/suffers delusions/hallucinates); these are as follows :
– early-onset bipolar disorder
– early-onset schizophrenia
Knock on effects of childhood mental illness:
Sometimes, childhood mental illness can have adverse knock-on effects; these include POOR EDUCATIONAL ACHIEVEMENT and CRIMINALITY (click here to read my article on this).
What factors put the child at risk of developing mental illness?
Factors involved in the development of childhood mental illness include :
1) BIOLOGICAL FACTORS
4) TRAUMATIC EXPERIENCES
Let’s look at each of these in turn :
1) BIOLOGICAL FACTORS :
a) Neurotransmitters – these are brain chemicals that can become disrupted when mental illness occurs; they include serotonin and dopamine. These neurotransmitters can be disrupted by the experience of significant trauma.
b) Brain structure – with some kinds of mental illness, it has been found that the physical development of certain brain regions has been disrupted (click here to read my article on this). This, too, can be the result of severe traumatic experiences.
2) GENDER :
Whilst girls are more likely to be diagnosed with depression and anxiety than boys, boys are more likely than girls to be diagnosed with hyperactive attention-deficit disorder (ADHD). This is thought to be due to both biological and cultural reasons.
3) GENETIC :
A child with a mentally ill parent is at 4 times greater risk of developing mental illness than a child who does not have a mentally ill parent. Whilst this could be due to genetic factors, it is also likely to be due to the stressful effects of being brought up by a parent with a psychiatric condition.
4) CHILDHOOD TRAUMATIC EXPERIENCES :
The kinds of childhood trauma that have found to be associated with the development of childhood mental illness include the following :
– abuse (psychological/emotional, sexual, or physical)
– neglect (physical and/or emotional)
– parental divorce
– parental conflict
– domestic violence
– having a parent with an alcohol/drug-related problem
– death of parent/sibling
The above list is not exhaustive and the effects of the above traumas will vary according to the individual affected and other factors (e.g. childhood trauma is likely to have worse effects for a child who is socially isolated/lacks a social support system/has a lack of compensatory, positive and protective factors operating in his/her life).
5) OTHER RISK FACTORS NOT MENTIONED ABOVE :
– low birth rate
– being born to a mother who is under the age of eighteen
– going through puberty (due to hormonal changes)
– significant changes in important relationships during adolescence
What are the signs that an individual may be developing mental health problems during childhood?
On top of the symptoms of the actual condition, other signs can include :
– psychosomatic complaints (these are physical complaints brought about by psychological stress and include headaches and stomach aches)
– insomnia/nightmares/night terrors/sleep walking
– torturing animals
– bullying others
– hypersomnia (ie EXCESSIVE need to sleep. NB, it is IMPORTANT TO REMEMBER, however, that it is normal for adolescents to need more sleep than adults, so one needs to be VERY CAREFUL when deciding if the need for extra sleep is excessive – in this regard, expert, professional advice should be sought)
– high risk-taking behaviour/dangerous behaviour
– bedwetting at an age when it would not be expected
– extreme and frequent outbursts of intense anger and rage. (NB, again it is IMPORTANT TO REMEMBER that a certain level of displays of temper and irritability are perfectly normal during adolescence. Here, too, then, care is needed when making judgments in relation to this particular problem)
– significantly decreased appetite/under-eating
– significant over-eating/’comfort eating’
– regression (this refers to reverting to behaviour that would normally only be expected at a much earlier stage of development e.g.frequent, extreme toddler-like temper tantrums in teens) Click here to read my article on this.
Diagnosis and treatment :
Expert, professional advice is required when making diagnoses about the mental health of a young person; however, if a problem is diagnosed, early intervention (such as counselling/psychotherapy) can help to avoid more serious problems developing in adulthood.
David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).