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Mental health in children and teenagers

October 10th is World Mental Health Day. More so than ever, mental health is becoming a very important issue that as a society we have to deal with. It affects about 1 in 10 children and young people. They include depression, anxiety and conduct disorder. However, only about 30% of these children and young people who experience this, receive the appropriate interventions at an early age. This year, 2019 the World Federation for Mental Health (WFMH) theme is Suicide Prevention.

Surveys and research suggests that more children and young people have problems with their mental health today than 30 years ago. That’s probably because of changes in the way we live now and how that affects the experience of growing up. Times are a changing and perhaps, we have steered away a little bit from “what that matters”, which have led us to face this issue.. 

The emotional wellbeing of children is just as important as their physical health. Good mental health allows children and young people to develop the resilience to cope with whatever life throws at them and grow into well-rounded, healthy adults.

These are some of the mental health problems that can affect children and young people.

  • Depression affects more children and young people today than in the last few decades, but it is still more common in adults. Teenagers are more likely to experience depression than young children.
  • Self-harm is a very common problem among young people. Some people find it helps them manage intense emotional pain if they harm themselves, through cutting or burning, for example. They may not wish to take their own life.
  • Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) can cause young people to become extremely worried. Very young children or children starting or moving school may have separation anxiety.
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can follow physical or sexual abuse, witnessing something extremely frightening of traumatizing, being the victim of violence or severe bullying or surviving a disaster.
  • Children who are consistently overactive ('hyperactive'), behave impulsively and have difficulty paying attention may have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Many more boys than girls are affected, but the cause of ADHD aren't fully understood.
  • Eating disorders usually start in the teenage years and are more common in girls than boys. The number of young people who develop an eating disorder is small, but eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa can have serious consequences for their physical health and development.

Sometimes it is easy to overlook the warning signs of mental illness in children. We need to be aware and realize the sudden change that takes place. 

Warning signs that your child might have a mental health condition include:

  • Mood changes. Look for feelings of sadness or withdrawal that last at least two weeks or severe mood swings that cause problems in relationships at home or school.
  • Intense feelings. Be aware of feelings of overwhelming fear for no reason — sometimes with a racing heart or fast breathing — or worries or fears intense enough to interfere with daily activities.
  • Behavior changes. These include drastic changes in behavior or personality, as well as dangerous or out-of-control behavior. Fighting frequently, using weapons and expressing a desire to badly hurt others also are warning signs.
  • Difficulty concentrating. Look for signs of trouble focusing or sitting still, both of which might lead to poor performance in school.
  • Unexplained weight loss. A sudden loss of appetite, frequent vomiting or use of laxatives might indicate an eating disorder.
  • Physical symptoms. Compared with adults, children with a mental health condition might develop headaches and stomachaches rather than sadness or anxiety.
  • Substance abuse. Some kids use drugs or alcohol to try to cope with their feelings.

What do you do if you suspect that your child has a mental health condition? If your child is having problems at school, a teacher, school nurse, school counselor or educational psychologist may be able to help. Otherwise, go to your GP or speak to a health visitor. These professionals are able to refer a child to further help. Most support for troubled children and young people is provided by the national health services, your child’s school or your local council’s social services department. Local education board or ministry can help direct you to the appropriate medical help, resources and support. Call and check the resources available to you. 

There are groups like Malaysian Mental Health Association that you can reach out to. Recently the Malaysian government also set up its first Psychological Care Centre (PCC) at Perumahan Awam Desa Rejang Setiawangsa of the B40 communities. 

More importantly, listen to your child. Listen kind, hard and well, with empathy and compassion. That is extremely  important. Never disregard when a child tries to express their thoughts and feelings. Never make them or anyone for that matter, feel ignored and unacknowledged. That is what needed most. Their emotional well being is as important as their physical health. 

Please do share your thoughts on kids and mental health in the comment section below. Also do share the resources that you do know about helping kids and teens to deal with their mental health in your local community. Love to hear from our wonderful public and that would be of tremendous help.


About the writer

Mazura Illani Manshoor graduated from Boston University with a degree in Psychology. She is a certified Early Childhood and a Montessori teacher with years of teaching experience.  

She is also co-founded  CreaTee and has the strong passion for children and education causes.

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