May is Mental Health Awareness Month


According to the Child Mind Institute, “mental health disorders are the most common diseases of childhood.”


However, all too often, the signs of mental illness are easily overlooked and misinterpreted. When parents don’t know what to look for, a mental disorder can go undiagnosed for years. 

Research shows that “of the 74.5 million children in the United States, an estimated 17.1 million [or 23%] have or have had a psychiatric disorder — more than the number of children with cancer, diabetes, and AIDS combined.” In honor of the month of May as Mental Health Awareness Month, here are a few signs that, when observed often, may be evidence that a child has a mental health condition.   

Mood changes and intense feelings

Look for feelings of sadness or withdrawal that last at least two weeks or severe mood swings that cause problems in relationships at home or school. If you notice that your child’s mood can change at the drop of a hat, from intense joy and excitement to intense anger or sadness for what seems like no reason at all, consider asking your pediatrician if your child could have a mood disorder. Also, keep an eye out for feelings of overwhelming fear for no reason — sometimes with a racing heart or fast breathing — especially if these worries or fears are intense enough to interfere with daily activities.

Problem behavior and behavior changes

These include drastic changes in behavior or personality, as well as dangerous or out-of-control behavior. Fighting frequently, using weapons and expressing a desire to badly hurt others are major warning signs that should be addressed as soon as possible. Delinquency, skipping school, getting expelled, getting arrested, and getting in trouble a lot at home and at school is a sign that your child may be experiencing mental anguish.

Kids and teens are known to act out when they are depressed. So if your child is having a hard time behaving, consider addressing your concerns to the school guidance counselor and your pediatrician so that you have help developing a game plan to get your child the help he or she needs. 

Difficulty concentrating

This is a common characteristic of all children, especially young children, so parents and teachers must be very careful not to jump to conclusions when a child just can’t seem to concentrate. There are many reasons a child might lack focus including problems going on at home or at school which the child can’t stop thinking about. For instance, a child may have difficulty concentrating because he’s always worried about facing a bully after school or because he often witnesses his parents get physical with each other when they argue.

Another common reason a child may have difficulty concentrating is that he’s hungry. In the United States, 1 in 6 children suffer from hunger. In schools across the country that amounts to at least 4 kids per classroom of 24 students, who probably had little or nothing to eat and can’t focus because they are hungry. Another reason kids have difficulty concentrating is lack of sleep and too much screen time.

So if your child is having difficulty concentrating, please don’t assume he or she has ADHD. Consider all the elements of the child’s home and school life, especially the child’s relationship with his parents, whether or not he’s being bullied, if it’s possible he may be hungry, if he’s getting enough sleep and whether or not his parents are in a loving, stable relationship. Then, if none of those issues seem to be a factor and the child still has trouble focusing and sitting still, address your concerns to your child’s pediatrician. 

Unexplained weight loss

A sudden loss of appetite, frequent vomiting or use of laxatives might indicate an eating disorder. Research shows that eating disorders are more common in girls then in boys and a lot more common in athletes in general, especially in sports that emphasize appearance, weight requirements, or muscularity (gymnastics, diving, bodybuilding, or wrestling) and sports that focus on the individual rather than the entire team (gymnastics, running, figure skating, dance or diving, versus teams sports such as basketball or soccer).


Sometimes a mental health condition leads to self-injury, also called self-harm. This is the act of deliberately harming your own body, such as cutting or burning yourself. Research shows that the most common methods of self-harm are skin cutting (70-90%), head banging or hitting (21%-44%), and burning (15%-35%). For some people, self-harm is a way for them to “cope with or relieve painful or hard-to-express feelings, and is generally not a suicide attempt.” It can also be a way for a person to have control over his or her body when the person feels he or she can’t control anything else in life. Research shows that “a lot of people who cut themselves also have an eating disorder.”

Physical symptoms

Compared with adults, children with a mental health condition may develop headaches and stomachaches rather than sadness or anxiety. If your child always seems to have a headache or a stomachache and sleep and lack of nutrition aren’t the issue, your child may be experiencing an underlying mental health condition.

Substance abuse

Substance abuse affects people of all ages. There are even children who are born addicts because their mothers were abusing drugs and alcohol in pregnancy. Substance abuse is one of the easiest ways for people to cope with their problems. Substances work fast, they are easily accessible and they are often celebrated and promoted in the maintsream media. Kids see their parents drink alcohol at family functions, they watch their favorite actors do drugs in movies and listen to their favorite musicians sing and rap about marijuana. 

In a survey of more than 46,000 teens—8th, 10th, and 12th graders to be exact—researchers found that 13% of 8th graders, 30% of 10th graders, and 40% of 12th graders said they had used a drug at least once in the past year. These are some pretty staggering statistics and they suggest that we as a society need to be more vigilant about protecting our children from substance abuse.

Substance abuse can lead to addiction which is a mental illness all on it’s own but substance abuse can also be a symptom of mental illness. Kids, teens and adults with serious depression, anxiety, mood disorders, schizophrenia, eating disorders, even gender dysphoria sometimes turn to drugs and alcohol to try to self-medicate. If you see that your child may be using drugs or drinking alcohol, consider getting him or her psychiatric help so that he or she can learn about healthier coping mechanisms.


We often mistake mental illness for normal child behavior. Now, it is not suggested that you assume that your child has a mental illness as soon as he or she has a meltdown, a frustrating time, or you notice some of the symptoms described above. Rather, it is important to educate yourself and your child so that you both can understand and recognize the signs. 

There is no queston that childhood mental illness is a public health crisis that deserves serious attention from parents, teachers, government officials and policy makers if we want to see our children’s mental health improve.

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Polanczyk, G. V., Salum, G. A., Sugaya, L. S., Caye, A., & Rohde, L. A. (2015). Annual research   review: A meta‐analysis of the worldwide prevalence of mental disorders in children and adolescents. Journal Of Child Psychology And Psychiatry, 56(3), 345-365. doi:10.1111/jcpp.12381

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