116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Each May, organizations, professionals and the public come together in an effort to raise awareness about mental health and provide support for those experiencing mental illness in honor of Mental Health Awareness Month. In addition, throughout the year and even within the month are weeks and days intended to highlight certain segments of the population and specific mental health issues. For example, May 7 is National Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day. Unfortunately, young people can be overlooked in mental health conversation, making this day particularly important.
One in six young people aged 6 to 17 in the United States experience a mental health disorder each year. In fact, the top five most common childhood disorders are mental health disorders rather than physical disorders raising the questions what is the cause and what can be done?
Answering those questions is difficult. The numbers can likely be attributed in part to an increase in awareness and conversation around mental health. Beyond that, it is important to understand that there are numerous potential causes of mental health challenges, particularly in children. Biological factors such as brain defects, prenatal damage or simple genetics. Psychological factors like experiencing trauma or neglect. Environmental factors such as a dysfunctional family setting, social pressures or unexpected life changes. Any of these has the potential to throw a wrench into a young person’s stability and lead to mental illness. Research shows that 50 percent of all lifetime mental illness begins by age 14 and 75 percent by age 24.
The question then becomes, if we know that a large number of young people in our communities are experiencing mental illness or facing associated risk factors, how do we identify those children and provide necessary support? Perhaps the first step is to remember that young people are in fact people. These humans, while younger, have feelings, emotions and thoughts just as older individuals do. Things like goals, dreams, fears and worries are individualized to each child just as they are to each adult.
From there, it becomes vital to normalize the conversation around mental health. Just as it is considered normal to discuss physical health with our children, we must become intentional about having open conversations about mental health. Adults can act as role models for young people. Demonstrating self-care and creating daily routines with children can help encourage feelings of security and stability in young people.
With this understanding, parents, caregivers and other trusted adults can help by learning to recognize the common warning signs in young people. Whereas adults may be more developmentally able to vocalize their feelings of fear, worry or anxiety, these feelings often manifest as physical symptoms in children. While some symptoms may simply be part of a child’s normal development, those that persist or worsen over time may indicate a potential concern. These symptoms may include things like abrupt changes in appetite or eating habits, difficulty sleeping, unexplained stomach aches, frequent headaches, impulsive or aggressive behaviors, difficulty with attention, extreme worry, fear of separation, extreme mood swings, withdrawal or avoiding activities or social interactions, or persistent sadness.
When concerning symptoms are recognized, it may be appropriate to consult with a doctor or mental health professional. There are several community organizations and other support resources available that can help provide recommendations for services and ongoing support for both the child and family.
In honor of National Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day, I invite everyone to take steps to be a positive role model in prioritizing your own mental health, encourage the young people around you to prioritize theirs and ensure they know they have support in their journey toward positive mental health.
Bryan Busch is a licensed mental health counselor in Cedar Rapids. He also works at Folience, the parent company of The Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.