There’s an old saying, “You don’t know what you don’t know.” That sentiment certainly applies to children’s mental health, which is a complex topic and one that comes with many misconceptions and misunderstandings.
NEA Healthy Futures wants to help clear up some of the confusion for educators, parents and families, and policy makers. It’s important to not only know the facts about children’s mental health, but also the roles that school can play to address the needs of students with mental health disorders. This knowledge is vital to prevent and guard against the developmental and environmental stressors that can exacerbate symptoms of poor mental health and lead to more negative outcomes.
Dr. Harold S. Koplewicz, the President of the Child Mind Institute, wrote an excellent article that details seven myths about children’s mental health. There is so much misunderstanding and stigma related to children’s mental health, in part because there is much that we still do not know about brain development and mental health disorders. But there is much that we do know about children with mental health needs.
Dr. Koplewicz’s article illuminates a number of key points. Please take a moment to become more informed and help replace existing myths with facts! We can all work together to reduce stigma and find better ways for our schools and communities to meet the mental health needs of children and their families.
A child with a psychiatric disorder is damaged for life.
A psychiatric disorder is by no means an indication of a child’s potential for future happiness and fulfillment. The most important thing to remember here is that early intervention can be very effective at preventing chronic, debilitating conditions.
Psychiatric problems result from personal weakness.
It can be difficult to separate the symptoms of a child’s psychiatric disorder – impulsive behavior, aggressiveness, or extreme shyness, for example – from a child’s character. A psychiatric disorder is an illness, just like diabetes or leukemia, and is not a personality type.
Psychiatric disorders result from bad parenting.
While a child’s home environment and relationships with his parents can exacerbate a psychiatric disorder, these things don’t cause the disorder. Anxiety, depression – indeed, the full range of psychiatric disorders – often have biological causes. Parenting isn’t to blame.
A child can manage a psychiatric disorder through willpower.
The key word here is disorder. A disorder is not mild anxiety or a dip in mood. It is severe distress and dysfunction that can affect all areas of a child’s life. A heartbreaking number of parents resist mental health services for their children because they fear the stigma attached to diagnoses or see psychiatrists as pill pushers.
Therapy for kids is a waste of time.
Today’s evidence-based treatment programs (that is, programs shown through research to be effective) for children and teens use a cognitive-behavioral therapy model that focuses on changing the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that are causing them serious problems. Research has shown that there’s a “window of opportunity” – the first years during which symptoms of psychiatric disorders appear – when treatment interventions are most successful.
Children are over-medicated.
Psychiatrists use enormous care when deciding whether and how to start a child on a treatment plan that includes medication – usually along with behavioral therapy. We never doubt whether a child with diabetes or a seizure disorder should get medication; we should take psychiatric illness just as seriously.
Children grow out of mental health problems.
Children are less likely to “grow out” of psychiatric disorders than they are to “grow into” more debilitating conditions. Most mental health problems left untreated in childhood become more difficult to treat in adulthood. Since we know that most psychiatric disorders emerge before a child’s 14th birthday, we should have huge incentive to screen young people for emotional and behavioral problems. We can then initiate treatment while a child’s brain is most responsive to change and treatment is more likely to be successful.