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Caring for mental health should start with children

May. 03, 2013 @ 12:00 AM

May 9 is National Children's Mental Health Awareness Day. Research shows that half of all lifelong mental illnesses develop before age 14 (see www.nimh.nih.gov). Mental illness cannot be prevented. It cannot be cured. It can be treated.

A child's brain is still working on developing and mental illnesses may be undetectable at an earlier age. The earlier that a child developing a mental illness and their family members participate in treatment, the better the outcome. Helping children and their parents early on with behavior difficulties can prevent the further development of some disorders. Once a mental illness fully develops, it becomes harder to treat because it is more ingrained and part of the child's usual behavior.

Children experience and react to stress just as adults do, even though children react differently from adults. And, not every problem is an indication of a serious mental illness. It could be serious when there are problems in more than one area -- at home, at school, during play time, around friends. Changes in sleeping or appetite can signal a problem. Social withdrawal or being fearful of people or places they previously were not may also signal a problem. Returning to behaviors typical of younger children like frequent bedwetting or thumb sucking might also signal a problem.

The child might be sad or tearful frequently. Head banging or cutting on themselves or having a tendency to get hurt more can signify a problem. Fits of rage, angry outbursts or assaultive violence may also signal a problem. Repeated thoughts about death may also be a sign there is a problem. Children exposed to tragedy or extreme stress may need professional counseling and treatment.

Some of the kinds of mental illnesses that affect children include depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, obsessive compulsive disorders, eating disorders and attention deficit disorders. Any diagnosis depends on how well the child is functioning at work, in school, at other activities and with peers, their age and maturity level and symptoms.

Behavior problems at school are not unusual and do not necessarily mean there is a mental illness. If your child has problems at school over a period of time, consider requesting an evaluation from the teacher or the school principal. If there is a mental illness in your child, the mental illness can cause behavior problems in the classroom. Once the mental illness is successfully treated, behavior problems in class diminish. Children with mental illness achieve better when they feel understood by their teachers, parents and family. It is important to keep your child's teachers informed about your child's mental illness and treatment so everyone stays on the same page.

When a child suffers from mental illness, there can be frustration, blame and anger among members of the family. Unhealthy interaction patterns may develop. The family has to learn to handle difficult situations and behaviors. Parents may benefit from practicing stress management techniques to help them deal with frustration so they respond calmly to their child's behavior. Mental health counselors help the child and family discover new skills and develop new attitudes and ways of communicating with one another. Counseling helps families find better ways to manage disruptive or unacceptable behaviors and encourage behavior changes.

Attention Deficit Disorder and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder have been in the rise over the past 20 years. Now they are the most commonly diagnosed behavior disorders in children and more common in boys compared to girls (www.nimh.nih.gov). ADD and ADHD are characterized by inattention, hyperactivity and impulsiveness. Inattention includes daydreaming, being easily distracted, concentration problems, unable to follow directions or complete tasks or being forgetful. Hyperactivity includes being fidgety, unable to stay seated, always running or walking or talking constantly. Impulsivity includes problems with blurting out answers before questions are complete, interrupting or difficulty waiting for their turn.

Medication and counseling are effective for 70-80 percent of children with this diagnosis. While primarily a childhood illness most common in elementary school age children, some continue to experience symptoms into early adulthood. Stimulants (amphetamines), non-stimulants and antidepressant medications are effective in treating ADD and AHDH. Adding counseling along with medication produces the best results. Counseling without medications may also be helpful for some children. One study by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) found that individuals treated with counseling alone had fewer or less obvious ADHD symptoms.

Science has proven that dietary changes (no red dye, low sugar for example) and/or vitamin treatments for ADD and ADHD are not effective (www.nimh.nih.gov ). We all know that a well balanced diet contributes to improved overall health, even though it is not effective alone in treating mental illness.

Experiencing childhood trauma is another common problem in the US today. Like adults, children react differently based on the circumstances of the traumatic event. A one-time traumatic experience may not produce a lifelong disability or mental illness. Multiple traumatic events over time can cause the child to be more affected. As adults it is important that we listen to children and that we believe them as a starting point to help them cope. Children exposed to traumatic events need professional counseling and treatment as soon as possible.

Professional counseling has been demonstrated to be effective in reducing symptoms of emotional/behavioral disorders. In addition to counseling, it may also be helpful to have a psychiatrist prescribe medication. Many, but not all, medications used to treat adults are safe and effective for children. Getting professional help early and staying in treatment with mental health professionals is the most important step to take.

Prestera Center offers Putnam County residents access to effective professional mental health and addictions treatment services in Winfield and Hurricane. Offices in Winfield are located at 3389 Winfield Road, Suite 8, on the grounds of the Courthouse Complex (304-586-0670). Offices in Hurricane are called "Hopewell" and are located at 3772 Teays Valley Road (304-757-8475). The Hopewell offices specialize in serving adults with insurance in need of addiction treatment and mental health problems like grief, depression and anxiety or more severe mental health problems. Both offices are accepting new clients and scheduling appointments. Walk-ins are also welcome Monday through Friday between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m. at the Winfield location.

Kim Miller is the director of Corporate Development at Prestera. She can be reached at kim.miller@prestera.org.