Children and adolescents, like adults, can have mental health concerns that interfere with the way they think, feel, and act. A person’s mental health influences their self-image, self-esteem, mood, energy, attention, and their interactions with the outside world. Mental health, like physical health, is important at every stage of life. When untreated, mental health concerns can lead to school failure, family conflicts, sexual promiscuity, drug abuse, violence, and even suicide.

Mental Health Disorders Are More Common in Young People than You Realize
When mental health concerns interfere with one’s daily functioning, impairing one’s ability to adequately work, socialize, or even meet their basic needs, then the concerns become a mental health disorder. Studies in the United States show that at least one in five children and adolescents have a mental health disorder. At least one in 10, or about 6 million people, have a serious emotional disturbance. A serious emotional disturbance refers to a mental health disorder that severely disrupts daily functioning in home, school, or in the community.

The Causes

Mental health disorders in children and adolescents are caused by a combination of biology and environment. Examples of biological causes are genetics, chemical imbalances in the body, damage to the central nervous system, such as a head injury, and the development of the child and adolescent’s brain. Research on teen brain development indicates that although teens feel ready to take risks, they are still learning how to think before they act.

Many environmental factors also put young people at risk for developing mental health disorders. Examples include:

– Exposure to violence, such as witnessing or being the victim of physical or sexual abuse;
– Exposure to emotional abuse and/or neglect;
– Stress related to chronic poverty and inadequate housing;
– Stress related to having a chronic illness;
– The loss of important people through death, divorce, or broken relationships and/or
– Exposure to environmental toxins, such as high levels of lead.

Signs of Mental Health Disorders Can Signal a Need for Help

Children and adolescents with mental health concerns need help. A variety of signs may point to mental health disorders or serious emotional disturbances in children or adolescents. Pay attention if a child or adolescent you know has any of these warning signs:

A child or adolescent often feels:

– Sad and hopeless for no reason, and these feelings do not go away,
– Very angry most of the time and crying a lot or overreacting to things,
– Worthless or guilty,
– Anxious or worried,
– Unable to cope with a loss or death of someone important over a prolonged period of time,
– Extremely fearful or having unexplained fears,
– Significant difficulty concentrating and unable to sit still for even short periods of time,
– Constantly over-concerned about physical problems or physical appearance, or
– Frightened that his or her mind either is controlled or is out of control.

A child or adolescent experiences big changes, such as:

– Showing declining performance in school,
– Losing interest in things once enjoyed,
– Experiencing unexplained changes in sleeping or eating patterns,
– Avoiding friends or family and wanting to be alone all the time,
– Feeling life is too hard to handle, or
– Experiencing suicidal thoughts.

A child or adolescent behaves in ways that cause problems, such as:

– Using alcohol or other drugs,
– Dieting and/or exercising obsessively,
– Sexually promiscuous behavior,
– Violating the rights of others or constantly breaking the law without regard for other people, or
– Doing things that can be life threatening or threatening to others.

Finding the Right Services Is Critical

To find the right services for their children, families are encouraged to seek information about treatments and services and obtain referrals from professionals such as general practitioners, pediatricians, school counselors and/or teachers. The “Helping Services” section of the blue pages in the phone book is also a helpful resource to find the appropriate service to meet your child’s needs. It is also a good idea to talk to other families, and do some research on family network organizations in your community, church and/or as advertised in the media.

We must remember that every child’s mental health is important. Mental health problems at any age are real, painful, and can be severe. The good news is that these problems can be recognized and treated, and that caring families and communities can work together to help.

For further information, please call Child and Adolescent Services at 239-6344.

Dr. Sandy De Silva is employed as a clinical psychologist working with young people between the ages of 4 and 18 years old at Child and Adolescent Services. She has been with Bermuda Hospitals Board for 2 years.


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