Mental illness in children is much more common than many people think. The occurrence of mental disorders in children varies between countries. For Nigeria, estimates vary between one in ten and one in three children suffering from mental illness. Lack of emotional support, unstable families, exposure to pornography, alcohol abuse, traumatic events (e.g. rape) are things that put a child at risk of mental illness. Some children are naturally predisposed to mental health conditions.
Good mental and emotional health is essential for children to grow up to become stable and responsible adults.
Types of mental illness in children
Several types of mental illness can affect children. They include:
- Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
- Behavioural disorders like oppositional deficit disorder.
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder.
- Mood disorders like depression, bipolar disorder.
- Post-traumatic disorders.
- Eating disorders like anorexia, bulimia.
- Tics are repetitive movements, sounds or twitches that a person does unwillingly. They can not decide to stop.
How to identify mental illness in a child
The following are things that may indicate mental illness in a child:
- Unusual behaviour or changes in your child’s personality.
- Frequent sadness, low mood or lack of excitement about something that they generally enjoy.
- Violent or aggressive behaviour. They may beat up siblings, classmates or even people in positions of authority. They may also use knives or pencils causing injury to another person.
- Stealing, skipping school and not listening to you or their teachers. They may even defy the police.
- Attempting suicide or making comments about how easy it will be to kill themselves.
- Fear and anxiousness about changes. The child may even have stomach pain, chest pain or complain that their heart is racing when scared.
- Bed-wetting or pooping on themselves without any underlying physical illness.
- Alcohol or drug abuse.
- They may see things or hear things that others cannot perceive. In some cases, they may also receive instructions from those invisible people.
- Nightmares or night terrors. These children may wake up at night screaming, crying or sweating. At times they are scared of going to bed for fear of these awful dreams.
What to do
There are many ways to support your child if you think they have a mental illness. They include:
- Speak to a child psychologist. It is crucial to speak to a specialist to know what may be wrong with your child and how you can help them.
- Learn as much as possible about your child’s condition, the treatment options and what it could mean for you and your family.
- Ensure your child is attending therapy and using their medications appropriately.
- Work with your child’s teachers and the school management so that they can accommodate your child's peculiarities.
- Join a support group of people with similar struggles. Your healthcare provider will have the contacts of support groups in your community.
- Encourage your child and draw their attention to the things they do well. It is essential to affirm them so that they do not feel problematic or a burden.
- Ensure that other children understand that they are no less important. It is very easy to concentrate all the resources on the child you believe needs help while the others feel neglected.
- Take time for yourself. Caring for children with mental illness can be draining. Be kind to yourself when you don’t get things right and understand that you are doing your best. Take care of your own mental health.
Mental illness in children is just as critical as that of adults, and caregivers need to pay attention to children and their needs. People with mental illness require more support than the rest of us to help them get better or cope with their disorder. They should not be stigmatized or isolated from society. Instead, they need support from family friends and the community. With the proper care and support, they can live productive lives.