Childhood Mental Illness: How Parents can Spot Early Signs and Access Help

Children in the UK are facing a mental health crisis.

Last year alone over 50,000 children and young people contacted Childline seeking help for severe mental health problems, and the Children’s Commissioner estimates that as many as 800,000 children are battling other kinds of mental illness. A recent survey conducted by the NASUWT union showed that children as young as four face problems such as high levels of anxiety, eating disorders, depression and panic attacks.

Despite promises by the government to focus on mental health, especially in the childhood mental health sector, budget cuts and lacklustre follow-ups to pledges have left many children struggling with mental health issues, without proper support structures or even a clear path to diagnosis.

This leaves much of the responsibility to parents and teachers, and even to the children themselves, to identify a problem as it arises and find ways of dealing with it.

What is Causing the Rise of Mental Illness in the UK’s Children?

While there isn’t a definitive reason identified as the ultimate cause for the high instance of mental illness in children in the UK, common triggers include:

  • Abuse, trauma and neglect
  • Social isolation and loneliness
  • Bullying and peer pressure
  • Social disadvantage
  • Bereavement
  • Stress over a prolonged period
  • Domestic violence, family problems

Governmental support in the mental health sector may still be lacking, but some basic knowledge can help parents feel empowered to help protect their children from the fallout of struggling with a mental health condition. Preventing a condition from taking hold, before it can become established and cause long-term damage, is a parent’s best strategy. This means being able to spot the early warning signs and knowing what to do if you notice them.

Spotting the Warning Signs of Mental Illness in Your Child

It’s important to know the difference between when your child is feeling a bit low and when there may be a serious problem. Everyone feels low from time to time and mild cases of low self-esteem, particularly at school, are very common in young people. These mild cases will usually pass with or without parental input.

If your child is feeling unhappy for a prolonged period of time and you’re not able to help them lighten their spirits, it’s time to take the situation seriously.

Specifically, look out for one or more of the following:

  • Overwhelming and persistent feelings of fear or worry that interfere with daily activities (this may also include a racing heartbeat or rapid breathing)
  • Difficulty concentrating or focusing
  • Persistent feelings of sadness or a low mood that won’t abate
  • A rise in irritability and grumpiness
  • A lack of interest in previously enjoyed activities
  • An increase in fatigue
  • Difficulty sleeping or an increase in sleeping
  • Changing in eating patterns (either overeating or a lack of interest in eating)
  • Withdrawal from interactions with friends and family
  • Difficulty feeling and expressing emotions
  • A lack of confidence and an increase in indecision
  • An obsessive preoccupation with weight-loss
  • Negative self-talk (Putting oneself down excessively, low self-esteem)
  • Feeling guilty or expressing feelings of worthlessness

Some of the more severe signs to watch for include:

  • Self-harm
  • Talk or thoughts of suicide
  • Vomiting and the use of laxatives (which may be indicative of an eating disorder)

What You Can Do If You Spot These Signs

If your observations are concerning, your first step could be to schedule a visit to your GP or a pediatrician. They will be able to assess your child and suggest local support options available, although there can be a fairly long wait for child counsellors or family therapy.

Equally important is to approach your child’s school and inform them of your child’s situation. As more and more teachers undergo mental health training , your child’s place of learning can become a pillar of support as you find your way to helping your child. All UK schools have access to counsellors although, as with GP referral, waiting times will vary.

If you have to wait for referral, you can still use the time to help your child. The NHS advisesparents to encourage their child to talk, whether to them, a grandparent or teacher: as long as it’s a trusted adult who will not judge or criticize them based on their negative emotions.

There is still a harmful stigma attached to mental illness, and it’s important to make sure your child understands that they’re still normal and that their feelings and challenges are not something to be ashamed of. Some simple changes in lifestyle too can have a profoundly positive effect on mental health, such as encouraging them to eat healthy foods and play outside, as numerous studies have shown.

Initiatives Available to Support You and Your Child

The NHS’s Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) is the UK’s central information resource. Advice on how CAMHS works, how to best gain access to its services and the questions to ask when dealing with healthcare providers can be found on this Guide to CAMHS page, at YOUNGMINDS.

The UK Government does now have plans underway to implement mental health teams in schools across the UK. This initiative will see that schools have trained personnel on hand to help children at the onset of mental illness symptoms, hopefully avoiding long-term conditions that can seriously impact a child’s education and inhibit their opportunities on leaving school and beyond.

This rollout, however, is only due to start in 2019, with a proposed completion date in 2020. Even with this extra level of support in place, it’s paramount that parents stay on top of their children’s mental health, learn how to spot signs of potentially serious conditions early on and understand the steps they can take in supporting them in recovery.

Ideally, through better observation and understanding of childhood mental health, we will eventually reach a point where we can spot all early symptoms of mental illness in our children and prevent them from becoming serious.

Have a look at our guide, The UK Family’s Pocket Guide to Common Mental Illnesses for free, valuable information that could help you today.

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