Over the past decade, neuroscientists and mental health professionals have learned more about the development of a child’s brain. We now know that by the age of six, a child’s brain is 95% developed, and through this greater understanding of how fast, and when specific areas of children’s brains develop, we are learning more about the early stages of a wide range of mental illnesses that can appear later in life (NIMH.gov).
Nearly 15 million of our nation’s youth can currently be diagnosed with a mental health disorder, and many more are at risk of developing a disorder due to risk factors in their genetics, family life, school life, and communities. The need for mental health care based on scientific evidence and good clinical expertise is growing. Mental health professionals must take into account the unique characteristics of the child before diagnosing. However, it is estimated that only about 7 percent of these youth who need services receive the necessary professional mental health treatment (APA.org).
Today we know that nearly half of all lifetime mental illnesses begin by age 14 (NIMH.gov), and it’s estimated that 1 in 5 children experience a mental disorder in a given year (CDC.gov). While doctors and mental health professionals are able to diagnose and treat illnesses such as ADHD, oppositional defiant disorder, conduct disorder, bipolar disorder, autism spectrum disorders, anxiety, and depression, at a much earlier age, diagnosing mental illness in a child can be a difficult. It is particularly challenging because many young children have difficulties expressing their emotions, and normal development varies from child to child (MayoClinic.org).
Prior to diagnosing a child with a mental condition, it is critical to understand a child’s family history, explains Barbara Jessing, Clinical Director of Connections at Project Harmony.
“While some disorders such as autism are genetic, some disorders can be tracked back to trauma or neglect. When you treat a child for a mental health conditions, we often need to treat the entire family,” she explains.
“Providing caregivers with the skills and support they need to be successful is critical in the long-term success of the child and the rest of the family unit,” says Jessing.
Early childhood trauma can affect a child’s brain development even in the womb. When the mother is experiencing long-term stress or depression, the mother’s body produces the stress hormone cortisol, which can be transferred to the child through the amniotic fluid (news-medical.net). Those increased levels of cortisol can leave lasting effects on a baby’s brain.
According to Science Daily, “The impact of mothers’ depression on fetuses and newborns has generated a considerable amount of research in recent years. Previous studies have shown that babies born to women with severe depression may be more likely to be born prematurely or underweight, have diminished hand-to-mouth coordination, and be less cuddly.”
These babies also can be more difficult to console, more anxious, more apathetic, have delayed language development, and lack normal social skills.
The earlier an illness is diagnosed and treated, the better the outcomes generally tend to be (NIMH.gov). Once a child is diagnosed, do not delay treatment. Without intervention, a child’s behavioral issues can intensify, causing additional problems at school and at home.
“Our community has an outstanding continuum of early childhood mental health services, “says Jessing. “If a parent is having concerns about their child, I would suggest taking them to their pediatrician and getting a Social, Emotional and Developmental Screening. That screening will help determine if the child needs more specialized care.”
To learn more about available evidence based treatments, please refer to the Coalition for Children’s Mental Health and Project Harmony’s white paper, Best Practices for Young Children births Through Eight Years Old.
About Jill Sauser, The Kim Foundation Project Coordinator
Jill graduated with a degree in Journalism and a minor in Speech Communication from the University of Nebraska at Omaha in 2009. During her time at UNO, she completed a two year PR practicum program where she worked with numerous nonprofit clients including the MS Society, The Archdiocese of Omaha, The Omaha Food Bank and YWCA. Jill joined The Kim Foundation as Project Coordinator in April 2014.