Mental Health

Treating children with mental illness

Treating children with mental illness

10-7-2006 — Treating children with mental illness.

Mental Health experts urge parents to be alert to signs of depression in young children as early intervention can make a positive difference during treatment.
The phrase “mental illness” often conjures up a host of negative images perpetuated by Hollywood films using disabilities as fodder for scripts.

There’s “The Bad Seed,” a 1956 film with Patty McCormack as a 6-year-old murderous psychopath; “Me, Myself & Irene” (2000) with Jim Carrey as a police officer with a multiple personality disorder; and “Girl, Interrupted” (1999) with Winona Ryder as a depressed and promiscuous young woman who checks herself into a mental hospital where she is befriended by an inmate played by Angelina Jolie, to name but a few.

Some film depictions are fragmented. Others are distorted. A few are accurate.

Julie Golkowski, director of Child, Adolescent and Family Services at the Seacoast Mental Health Center in Portsmouth and Exeter says labeling and stereotyping young adolescents with mental health challenges persists, hampering recovery efforts.

“There continues to be stigmatized attitudes about disorders,” Golkowski says. “I think the more we talk and educate we erase stigma.”

Golkowski says as young adolescents face transitions and stressors associated with entering adulthood, they encounter a host of potholes during the trek. Some will find the road again; others may have trouble getting out of a ditch.

“It becomes a disorder when it impacts your daily living,” Golkowski says. “That may mean you’re too anxious to go to school.”

Golkowski says her agency encourages families to seek early-intervention assistance.

According to the 1999 Mental Health: A Report of the Surgeon General, at least 20 percent of children and adolescents have a mental health disorder. Some conditions such as sadness after the death of a pet ebb with time. Other conditions, ranging from severe depression to anxiety, often last for prolonged periods, disrupting a child’s life.

“Mental and behavioral disorders and serious emotional disturbances in children and adolescents can lead to school failure, alcohol or drug use, violence, or suicide,” reads a Web site excerpt from the Healthy New Hampshire 2010 Leadership Council and New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services. Golkowski stresses that early treatment reduces these risk factors.

Golkowski and Anita McCarthy, a licensed parent and child therapist and child development specialist based in Portsmouth, say mental health roadblocks result from biological, social and psychological factors. While both women say adults can take proactive steps to lessen the negative impact of some stressors, parents shouldn’t shrink in shame and blame.

“We certainly don’t want them to get the impression that it’s all their fault,” Golkowski says. “You really have to look at the whole picture.”

McCarthy says part of the picture relates to understanding the cognitive and psychosocial development stages preteens face, as outlined by psychologists Jean Piaget and Erik Erikson. For instance, Piaget asserts that at about 11 years, a child enters the formal operational stage and develops concerns about social and identity issues.

Meanwhile, Erikson posits a child between 6 and 12 years approaches the industry versus inferiority stage and faces demands to learn new skills to avoid a sense of incompetence or failure.

For instance, a student exiting elementary school and entering middle school grapples with learning locker combinations, taking notes in class, and accepting the role of being the youngest and smallest.

Golkowski says, “Things as adults we forget.”

Meanwhile, unhealthy images from television programs and magazine advertisements bombard young adolescents with unrealistic expectations.

“The media portrays body images that are unobtainable,” Golkowski says.

As a result, young viewers feel inadequate.

McCarthy says other transitions induce stress for children.

Contending with the divorce of parents, death of a relative, news of a learning disability, or move to a new town requires young adolescents to adjust. However, sometimes the youngster’s adaptability battery is drained of power and their mental motor begins to mutter and sputter. Golkowski and McCarthy cite a host of warning signs, indicating a child needs help with refueling.

Injuries to self, expressions of helplessness, swings in moods, changes in eating habits, difficulties sleeping, fluctuations in grades and use of alcohol and drugs are a few on their lists.

McCarthy says a behavior problem, such as yelling or interrupting in a classroom, is often one of the first signs a child is experiencing difficulty coping with stressors. She recommends looking for patterns.

“Then, it’s about putting the pieces of the pie together,” McCarthy says.

One part of the pie is related to how a child uses spare time. While Golkowski and McCarthy don’t use the technologies of the Digital Age as a scapegoat for youth problems, they agree electronic devices in a household, ranging from computers to televisions, can splinter family time. In 2006, Nielsen Media Research estimated average American homes have their televisions on eight hours daily or 55 hours weekly.

“I think it’s difficult to say, ?No television. No video games,'” McCarthy says.

However, she says, parents need to develop opportunities for uninterrupted conversations with their children to share experiences, tackle problems, and take a break.

Golkowski adds, “It’s a lot about relationships. I think it’s nurturance.”

Golkowski talks about the benefits of reviving a fading ritual — gathering for dinner. However, she realizes for adults and children finding family time is a formidable feat.

“That may be hard be for some folks,” she says.

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