Mental Health Awareness Month: What does this mean to me? What does it mean for Children?

Posted on May 15, 2013 at 9:25 PM

By: Fallon Stoeffler

For a long time, people have handled mental health disorders at arms length. Rest assured: you cannot catch a mental illness by standing near someone with a mental illness. If your child attends school and befriends or socializes with a child with ADHD, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, or Mental or Physical Retardation, they will not "catch" any of these disorders. And certainly, if you take time to educate yourself about mental illness, you will not only not be afflicted, but you will be improving your ability to interact with, teach, befriend, listen to, and simply understand a large portion of the population at large.


Children can be among the toughest to look at objectively and pinpoint a mental health issue. Granted, with their brains still undergoing major developments until age ten or so, they will be more than happy to say what they want, or what they think and feel without censure. However, how do you weed through the normal, erratic behavior of children and see warning signs of mental illness or other disorder, such as Autism Spectrum Disorder? What is “normal” behavior, and what is “abnormal” behavior, especially in a child? If I see an adult running around in circles through the neighborhood saying “I’m a knight and going to slay a dragon”, and he or she doesn’t have a good reason (i.e. play-acting on purpose), then I might be fast to think to myself: Wow, that person might be mentally ill! However, if I see a five-year-old engaged in the same behavior, even if they’re playing by themselves, then that’s a world of difference. In the same way that we view child behaviors through a special lens, we also need to be able to focus that lens correctly to understand when those “childish” behaviors, or lack of behaviors, cross the line where they mean something else. As teachers, parents, observing adults, caregivers, and even fellow students, we need to be not just aware, but informed, because it does not take long for one droplet to quickly turn into an avalanche.


There are growing prevalence rates for childhood psychological disorders: the NIH webpage specifies that 3.7% of children are afflicted with some type of mood disorder (i.e. depression or anxiety). By numbers, children afflicted with a psychological disorder are at a disadvantage from the outset. About half of all people with a psychological disorder will show symptoms or develop a comorbid disorder within twelve months (Farmer, Kosty, Seeley, Olino, & Lewisohn, 2013). In addition, psychopathology in children can be a predictor for a waterfall of other concerns: higher chance of adolescent dropout, development of more severe forms or comorbid disorders, as mentioned above, loss of confidence in themselves and schoolwork, and a diminishing sense of their own competence and ability to master new concepts (Quiroga, Janoz, Bissett, & Morin, 2012).


Prior to puberty, children’s ability to learn new things, to master new skills, and to develop strategies to cope with the world around them are being constantly refined and learned. On a neurological level, they are going through the largest and most affecting period of synaptic structuring and restructuring (called “pruning) in their lives. After puberty, however, many behaviors are largely set, and the ability to learn things such as new languages is diminished. This is not to say that as adults we can’t learn new things, or alter our behaviors, but it is true that many of our ways of coping with the world, our personality, the way we interact, is well on its way to being set when we are children.


Let us illustrate with an example: picture an eight-year-old boy (we’ll call him “Ben”;). Everyone thinks this strange, somber boy who occasionally fixates on death and acts overemotional is just an “overly serious” kid, "weird," or perhaps “a huge crybaby.” In reality, combined with many other symptoms, this child might be suffering from childhood depression or anxiety. His patterns and ways of dealing with the world around him are hugely affected. He may not put forth the effort in school to learn new things, possibly because with depression comes anhedonia, or a disinterest in doing things previously found pleasurable. It could also be because he doesn’t understand why he feels the way he does, why he has trouble. He may have developed the view that bad things are going to happen or he’s going to feel bad “no matter what” (a state called “learned helplessness”;). This can affect this child in multiple ways, the first of which being that his lack of confidence might cause him to not try to learn, and therefore, miss gaining new information and crucial knowledge during a time when his ability to learn and gather this knowledge is at its highest.


However, it is the second way where we as teachers, parents, and fellow students enter the equation. The unfortunate offset of Ben’s projected lack of interest or lack of trying might and in many cases probably will give him the unfortunate label as a “bad student.” On the surface, he’s the kid that doesn’t want to learn, a kid who might or might not do his homework; he’s the boy who doesn’t react to a D or an F on a project or test because he doesn’t seem to care. As the adults, we could potentially label this kid as a bad seed, and believe it or not, the way we feel about Ben, even in our own minds, can’t help but surface in our interactions with him. Now, in addition to our probably somewhat visible frustration, others around him are treating him the way that he appears on the surface. Other kids might tease for being a “crybaby” or being “stupid.” His parents get angry because Ben can’t seem to pull it together and get good grades. And Ben himself, who was a promising young child that couldn’t understand just why he was feeling so sad and alone, is now being treated by everyone like a “bad kid.” Questions of nature and nurture aside, if you are told something enough, it will eventually become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Ben’s way of coping with his hostile outer environment becomes necessarily (to him) hostile in return, possibly setting a pattern of lifelong, maladaptive behavior.


Obviously, this is a worst-case scenario. Many teachers and parents are intuitive to changes in children’s moods or behaviors and react accordingly. However, this is just a call to all involved with our children to get informed. Be not only aware that childhood psychological disorders are out there, but also that they are real, they can affect children early than many think, and they are more prevalent than many believe. Become informed not only on the media’s star topics like ADHD and Autism Spectrum Disorders, but on other conditions which can affect children, such as Oppositional Defiant Disorder, Conduct Disorder, Anxiety, Depression, and early warning signs or markers for later onset disorders such as Schizophrenia. Pick up a copy of the DSM-IV, available in any bookstore or online, and familiarize yourself with the symptoms of the issues above, and watch for signs of those in the children and adolescents you interact with.


Is every child who misbehaves once or twice, or runs around like a chimpanzee on Red Bull (as most children do!), showing a sign of a mental disorder? Of course not. But move away from simply labeling children as “bad,” “good,” “smart,” “dumb,” “gifted,” or “difficult” (and dealing with them accordingly), and really look for the causes of their behavior, watch out for warning signs or predictors of something more underlying their behavior or personality change, and you may do more than just help. You may be the first step to saving that child and giving them a chance at what, with no intervention, they might not have had otherwise: a normal, possibly good, maybe great, hopefully fulfilled, life.


Farmer, R. F., Kosty, D. B., Seeley, J. R., Olino, T. M., & Lewinsohn, P. M. (2013). Aggregation of Lifetime Axis I Psychiatric Disorders Through Age 30: Incidence, Predictors and Associated Psychosocial Outcomes. Journal of Abnormal Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0031429


Quiroga, C. V., Janosz, M., Bisset, S., Morin, A. J. S. (2013). Early adolescent depression symptoms and school dropout: mediating processes involving self reported academic competence and achievement. Journal of Educational Psychology, 105(2), p.552-560.

Categories: Academics/Studying, Disability Discrimination, Blogger: Fallon Stoeffler

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