Each individual is unique in behavior and thinking. But there are some norms and ways of facing situations that are common in everyone. What if you went through a day, feeling depressed and suicidal? Some days yes, a week okay, how about always? And mood swings, do you find yourself happy and 2 hours later for no reason, angry and upset? Such feelings are signs of illness in mental health. Mental health is the wellness and well-being of both thoughts and emotional state in a person, which are both deeply linked to each other. A mental disorder is an illness or condition affecting the human mind, characterized by erratic behavior, moods, feelings and thoughts. A person’s social interactions and functioning in any sphere, can be compromised by such an illness.
Like any disease, a mental disorder does not discriminate on the basis of race, religion and even age. Yes, mental disorders can occur in children, and the bad news: they are more difficult to detect and treat, than in adults. An approximate 12 million children under 18, suffer from a mental disorder. In this article, we take an in-depth look at some mental disorders and their symptoms, which affect children.
Types of Mental Disorders in Children
Everyone has fears and anxieties, and fears are never more magnified, then during childhood. From monsters under the bed, to the new teacher at school, it is normal for a child to have fears and phobias. But when a child is terrified of something, or his/hers fear starts to interfere with his/hers behavior, friends and family life, something is wrong. Being scared is different from sweating and crying profusely, or getting repeated nightmares. While most childhood fears fade away, those that last can haunt a child well into adulthood, and can lead to depression and suicidal tendencies. Anxiety disorders are one of the most common mental disorders that can affect children, with a prevalence rate of 10-20 %. An anxiety disorder can take many forms, such as:
- Fear of specific phobias or objects of fear( animals, darkness, school etc.)
- Generalized anxiousness in every situation, often unnecessary and unrealistic fear
- Social anxiety, where the child is extremely conscious and nervous in the company of others
- Obsessive compulsive disorder
- Panic attacks
- Separation anxiety
- Post-traumatic stress disorder
This disorder is not confined to adults. On an average 1 child in 40,000 children, has schizophrenia. It occurs very rarely in young children, the typical age for onset is late adolescence. Children with schizophrenia, exhibit some of the following behavior patterns:
- Talking repeatedly to oneself
- Avoiding social contact
- Talking and seeing things that don’t exist
- Troubles with memory retention and reasoning
- Depressed and lack of emotions
- Cannot pay attention and wrong speech patterns
It is difficult to correctly diagnose a mental disorder in a child, and schizophrenia is one such disorder, as it is often misdiagnosed as autism, or a bipolar personality.
Involuntary actions or movements by the body or the face, or sounds are called tics. Such actions are characterized by a lack of control. The person cannot predict or stop the movement or sound. Some tics are just movements, some are sounds, like shouting out certain phrases or words. The most common tic disorder is Tourette’s syndrome, where both physical movements and sounds are involuntary. A child with Tourette’s might repeat a word at random times, and then clap his hands. Tic disorders are usually coupled with other mental disorders like OCD or ADHD.
Conduct or disruptive behavior disorders are one of the most common mental disorders found in children. While human behavior is varied in emotion and expression, there is a common conduct code to be followed. Children with this disorder, seem to love causing trouble, and hate to follow rules. Some destructive behavior signs to look out for, are:
- Will steal using force or stealth, often for little or no profit
- Habit of starting fires
- Bunks school, or fails to show up at a job
- Is physically cruel to animals and humans
- Forceful and aggressive manner, especially in relationships
- Starts fights
- Uses weapons in fights, and tries to carry one around
- Forces others into sexual activity
- Destroys others property or objects
- Lies in every sphere of life
- Cannot, or will not, follow laws and rules in any area
A child who displays at least 3 of the above behavior signs in 6 months, is very likely suffering from a conduct disorder. This sort of behavior is difficult to diagnose in smaller children, but a cruel and destructive nature is obvious, even in a child of a young age.
Pervasive Developmental Disorders
Intellectual communication and expression is the area affected by such disorders. For example, understanding languages and speaking them, how to respond correctly to the external world, through sight, smell and other senses; the ability to do such activities is not present. Pervasive developmental disorders are the most severe type of mental disorders in children. They affect approx 10 – 15 children in a population of 10,000. Autism is one form of the five developmental disorders. A few symptoms of these disorders are:
- Difficulty in speaking and using languages
- Cannot understand languages
- Unusual behavior and habits
- Indifference and lack of emotion to objects, people and events
- Weird body movements and patterns
- Difficulty in forming facial expressions and body language
- Lack of social skills
- Cannot handle spontaneous events, or any change in routine
Permanent sadness, feelings of worthlessness and despair.. such emotions are key signs of a mood disorder. Though teenagers are known for their moodiness, such disorders can lead to suicide, or abusing others.
Depression is a type of mood disorder, which is noticed among younger children, of ages 6-12. A sad and somber air, guilty feelings, loss of appetite and lack of interest in doing anything, are some obvious signs. More often, they lead to darker emotions of hopelessness and thoughts of death. A child suffering from depression, has no self-worth or confidence in himself.
Another mood disorder is manic-depressive or bipolar disorder. Fluctuating moods and emotional levels are the main sign. A child might be overjoyed one minute, and very very depressed after sometime, often unexplained. A bipolar disorder is very destructive for both the child and people around him/her. It can seriously affect academic performance, family relationships and friends.
Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
This is easily the most common of all mental disorders that affect children. An estimated 3-5 percent of school-going children are affected by ADHD. It is also chronic in nature, an estimated 30-50 percent of children with ADHD, retain symptoms into adulthood. The signs of ADHD start between ages 8 -10, and is more common in boys. The key sign is in the name itself, a lack of attention or the child cannot pay attention. Children with ADHD show the following behavioral traits:
- Cannot follow directions
- Bored quickly with tasks and work
- Very very active, cannot keep still, will move constantly
- Impulsive and rash in acting and working
- Cannot concentrate or focus, switches between tasks
- Slow in processing data or being accurate
- Talks on and on, never listens, always distracted
- Squirms and fidgets when seated, has to move about
- Touching and playing with everything
- No patience, cannot wait for his/hers turn and is unwilling to share
- Blurts out comments and acts very emotional
How to diagnose a mental disorders in a child? Look for erratic behavior patterns, changes in food and sleep, and a marked change in personality. Most mental illnesses in children are diagnosed, first by a family physician, who brings in specialized mental health experts only in serious or chronic cases. In some cases, it is better to directly seek the aid of a psychiatrist, especially when the patient is suicidal or severely depressed. The outlook for children suffering from mental illness, is not bleak, as with the proper and in-time treatment and help, the illness can be controlled or cured.