Can children have mental illness?

Children can—and do—suffer from mental illness. According to Elder Alexander B. Morrison, “An estimated 10% of children in the U.S. suffer from a mental health disorder that disrupts their functioning in home, in school, or in the community.” This may include illnesses related to chemical imbalances, abuse and trauma, and developmental disorders, as well as learning disorders, autism spectrum disorders, ADHD, drug and alcohol abuse, and eating disorders.

Childhood mental illness can have long-lasting effects on the developing brain. If a child is already experiencing things like severe anxiety, depression, or extreme behavior problems, those issues—if left untreated—will likely continue and worsen in adolescence and adulthood. However, catching these issues early and giving kids the counseling, behavior training, coping skills, and support they need can help them cope better with their current challenges, develop resiliency, and prevent or lessen future mental health problems.

Unfortunately, sometimes children’s emotional problems may be missed, dismissed, or punished rather than addressed.

One difficulty in identifying childhood mental illness is that the childhood versions of symptoms may differ from adult symptoms. For example, a child suffering from depression may be irritable and out-of-control, not just weepy and withdrawn. A child suffering from anxiety may complain about physical symptoms (upset stomach, headaches, trouble sleeping, fidgeting) rather than emotional states (stressed out, anxious). This physical, concrete way of processing feelings, combined with children’s lack of experience, maturity, and vocabulary may make it difficult for adults to recognize mental health problems. These differences can sometimes lead adults to dismiss or invalidate children’s feelings, saying things like “Oh, it’s nothing,” or “You don’t mean that!”—or even to punish a child who expresses “unacceptable” emotions.

The truth is, more often than not, it is something, and they do mean it, at least on an emotional level. Children’s feelings and experiences need to be taken seriously. While they may not see things the way the adults in their lives do, the feelings children have about their world and experiences are real. They need to be heard.

By being aware of our children, our concerns for them, and their needs, we are better able to help them. We can also turn to others for help: school teachers and counselors, doctors, family therapists and other professionals; Primary teachers and Mutual leaders; coaches, relatives, and other mentors. Best of all, as Latter-day Saints, we can also ask for and rely on the help and comfort of the Holy Ghost to help us know how to reach our children who are suffering.

After all, they’re God’s children too.

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