Mental health issues in children are not uncommon

Editor’s Note: May is Mental Health Awareness Month. This is the third in a four-part series focusing on mental health and families. The series will include the impact of mental illness on a family, the influence genetics has on mental health, issues faced by children and the importance of parents getting necessary mental health treatment.

Childhood is often believed to be a carefree period of life, with none of the stresses or anxiety that come with the often complex difficulties of adulthood.

The fact is, however, that mental health issues in children are not uncommon. In fact, 50% of diagnosable mental disorders begin by the age of 14.

“We used to think that children were not capable of getting depressed,” said Dr. Joseph Antonowicz, a psychiatrist at the UPMC Altoona Behavioral Health Services Department. “This is a very old-fashioned idea. You do see depression in children.”

Other serious mental health issues also present in children.

“You see anxiety disorders in children, you see obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and you see psychotic disorders,” Antonowicz said.

It is essential that children and adolescents experiencing difficulties receive prompt and proper professional intervention.

“The first thing is that parents need to recognize it and address it,” said Denis Navarro, retired outpatient services supervisor and clinical specialist at the UPMC Behavioral Health Services Department. “Then, even though it’s an illness, the family stays intact, and the family moves forward.”

Along with anxiety disorders, major depression, bipolar disorder, and psychotic disorders like schizophrenia, children can be faced with developmental problems such as autism, Asperger’s syndrome, and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

When a child or adolescent is affected by a mental health issue, the entire family dynamic is impacted.

“It’s very tough on the whole family,” Antonowicz said. “It’s like any other serious illness in a child. What often happens in a family is that the whole life of the family tends to revolve around the needs of the sick kid. (The child’s illness) kind of becomes the center of the family’s life.

“On the one hand, that’s almost inevitable, but on the other hand, it’s something that (a family) really wants to try not to happen, if it can do so,” Antonowicz added. “(Parents) still have to get their other kids to their basketball games or school performances, and parents should attend those events. (Siblings of the ill child) need to do their things as much as they possibly can.”

Siblings can be profoundly impacted when a brother or sister is affected by a mental health condition. Siblings, as well as parents, can experience intense feelings of guilt, sadness, confusion, anger, and anxiety.

“It’s a complex situation for a family to be in,” Antonowicz said. “Here’s this kid with these problems, and he or she is getting all the attention, and (the healthy sibling or siblings) are doing the best that they can, but nobody is paying attention to them, and sometimes, they can’t help but feel ignored.”

Navarro said that it’s important that parents provide equal attention to their children who are not struggling with a mental health issue.

“How the parents interpret things and explain things to the sibling(s) is an important (factor) in how the sibling(s) react to the child who has the condition,” Navarro said. “I’ve seen that in a lot of families — the sibling(s) are very protective of, and helpful with, a child who has a condition such as autism.

“I really think that the sibling(s) get the lead from the parents on how they’re going to react to things,” Navarro added. “What the parents don’t want to do is to ignore the other children, or each other. Everybody has to kind of take care of each other in that situation, (so that) nobody is left out.”

Along with individual therapy, family therapy can also be helpful when a child or adolescent struggles with a mental health or developmental issue.

“Often, we try to involve (the entire) family in therapy in order to keep everybody getting what they need, and to keep the nurturance moving, so that the siblings are getting the same benefits from the parents (as the child with the mental health condition is),” Antonowicz said.

Medications must be used carefully and judiciously with children and adolescents, if they are used at all.

A disciplined, caring, supportive and structured family environment is also vital.

“There has to be rules and expectations,” Antonowicz said. “Mental illness is pretty disruptive at any age, but each age brings a different set of challenges and problems. As much as (parents) can, they have to try to help the child to internalize that parental control. That can take some time.”

Next: The importance of treatment for a parent with a mental health condition.

Mirror staff writer John Hartsock can be reached at jhartsock@altoonamirror.com.


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