Written by Emmanuelle Khoury, Ph.D, social worker.
I think she is growing up, and so begins to dream dreams, and have hopes and fears and fidgets, without knowing why or being able to explain them.
Louisa May Alcott
What are we talking about when we say mental health and well-being? And what does a mental health challenge in a child look like?
The World Health Organization explains that mental health or well-being is a state in which a person can cope with normal stresses of life, be productive and make a contribution to the community.
When we think about school-aged children, this might mean feeling stressed or worried about school work, friends, sports, but still being able to deal with it. ‘Dealing with it’ might mean that the child’s behaviours don’t change drastically, that she sleeps well most of the time, that there aren’t changes to her interest in school or her family life.
Common Mental Health Difficulties in Children
However, according to the Canadian Mental Health Association, 1 in 5 school aged children experience mental health difficulties. Click here for some resources from the Headspace on mental health in youth. Some of the common ones include anxiety and depression:
ANXIETY – anxiety is a normal feeling of tension or worry. It’s a response to stimuli or events in our everyday lives. Some anxiety can even be helpful. But if the anxiety is too intense or is non-stop, it may lead to fear, worry and panic.
DEPRESSION - everyone feels sad or down, but when those feelings turn to hopelessness and distress it often shows up in behaviours such as mood swings, crying, and trouble concentrating that impact life, family and school
When should you seek help for a child’s mental health?
Much as parents and caregivers sometimes deliberate whether or not to take a child to see the doctor if she’s had a fever for less than 24 hours (it might just be a normal cold or a passing bug!), they may also find it is hard to know when certain moods, behaviours or thoughts are worrisome.
Signs of mental health difficulties include very typical variations in moods and behaviours that are part of normal development. These might include loss of interest in school, slipping grades, avoiding friends, changes in sleep patterns, less energy or more energy, and feeling sad or worried.
Parents, teachers, or other significant adults in the life of a child should be concerned when these changes are intense, are constant (it’s not just a phase), and are bothersome for the child or cause problems in her life. And just like going to the doctor for a fever that doesn’t feel quite right, even if it has only been 24 hours, if your child’s mood, behaviour or thoughts don’t feel right then you can also go see the doctor or consult with a mental health professional. If your child is older, spend some time asking her about your concerns and take the time to listen to her response. Your child might be carrying around feelings of fear or shame related to the changes so you can let her know that you are there to help her work through these difficulties.
For more info on mental health in youth, visit the CAMH website and take a quick course on Youth and Mental Health 101.