Childhood Mental Illness – How to See the Signs

1-in-5 Children in the US are said to have a diagnosable mental illness. More than Half go untreated.

When I look back at my childhood, the signs were clearly and overwhelmingly there. By the age of 11, I would regularly isolate myself from my family by hiding away in another room for what felt like days at a time. My Trichotillamania was in full swing and was evidenced on the floor of every area in the house that I frequented. The computer room – hair. The den – hair. My bedroom – hair. All ripped from my scalp, one at a time, with the twirl of a finger. Once an extremely focused and advanced student, my grades began to slip as I found it harder to concentrate. Total apathy began to take hold. Dissociation was an ever present fog preventing me from feeling or enjoying much of anything. My mood was completely off and often written off to hormonal changes and puberty. Sadly, this seems to be the same narrative that women go through their entire lives – “it must just be hormones”. As if our hormones, in all human beings, don’t dictate a large part of our life experience. Looking back now, I can confidently say that at 11 years old I was depressed, self harming, and showing the beginning signs of mild anorexia.

As a small child, there were many times, when stressful situations arose, that I would experience nausea and puke where I stood.

While all the examples above are far more noticeable signs of emotional and mental issues, my symptoms started long before that. For the majority of the 18 years that I lived at home, I suffered from intense migraines. Migraines so awful that the pain would cause vomiting, tantrums, and even acute amnesia. As a small child, there were many times, when stressful situations arose, that I would experience nausea and puke where I stood. My sister seemed to suffer from this same anxiety induced stomach pain. Along with these issues, I experienced more mysterious symptoms, given this was the early 90’s, such as sleepwalking and night terrors.

I would not seek or receive any type of consistent help from a mental health professional until was 25 years old. That’s nearly 20 years of untreated mental illness. Mental illness that in those 20 years was able to grow and mutate into self destructive behaviors, internalized self hate, and codependency. Like many cases of untreated mental illness, it took having thoughts of ending my life for me to finally seek help. I remember the feeling in my stomach as I called multiple offices. My fight or flight response. The words, “I need to be seen as soon as possible”, coming out of my mouth. The relief when an office said they had something available the following week. I could make it a week. In a week, things will change. I feel grateful that through all the pain I was experiencing, I still valued my life and had hope that things could get better.

I blame no one for allowing the signs to go unnoticed. My mother tried her hardest. I remember going in and out of the doctors office for my migraines. My sister was also taken to the doctor frequently for her stomach issues. Our symptoms were consistently written off by our primary care doctors – leaving my mother often feeling helpless. It was the mid 1990’s. Even then, so little was known about mental illness in adults, let alone children, and it was an extremely taboo subject. When I left home at 18, many of my more physically painful symptoms subsided. I no longer suffered from frequent migraines. Night terrors became less frequent, though nightmares were ever present. Sleepwalking became a thing of the past. Though these specific symptoms became less, the long term damage had been done. Those symptoms were replaced with others such as self medicating with drugs and alcohol, eating disorders, and an overall lack of care for my own well being. I still suffered from Trichotillamania, which I often self deprecatingly joke never became too extreme because of my own vanity. Though, I did learn how to part and style my hair to cover the areas I had picked mostly bald. Behind my left ear. The crown of my head.

Because of my past, I’m able to be a truly empathetic advocate for children.

I was ultimately diagnosed with C-PTSD, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, and ADD. Like many others, I found my diagnosis liberating. At long last, I had words and definitions to put with what I’d been feeling all my life. With these diagnosis, I now knew what I was dealing with, how I could treat it, and start the long path to healing. Had all of this been caught sooner, I wouldn’t have spent much of my teenage years and early twenties in a self destructive fog, concentrating on unhealthy relationships, and, quite honestly, drinking myself into a stupor. But, you know what? I’m grateful nonetheless. Therapy completely changed my life and empowered me to take control of healing both my current self and my inner child. It allowed me to see healthy love when it was being presented to me (hi hun), to begin changing my destructive behaviors, and to be an adult that’s responsible for her own health. I am happy, healthy, and loved beyond measure by both myself and those around me. I’m not completely healed, but I’m in control.

It’s because of my experience that I’m able to be a truly empathetic advocate for children and their mental health. I’m thankful for this gift; which at times feels like a burden and at other times a superpower.

As parents, caregivers, and advocates, we have the ability to nip these issues in the bud by seeking out professional help for children.

The main point in sharing my somewhat cautionary tale is this: you can prevent your child from long-term suffering by noticing and addressing their issues as early as possible. At this point in their lives, you’re their number one advocate for a healthy life and that includes their mental state. There’s so much more known about mental health now than when we were younger. Lets use that information proactively to our advantage and create a healthier life for our children. As parents, caregivers, and advocates, we have the opportunity to nip these issues in the bud before they grow into something much worse. As much as I appreciate my personal journey, I can say, with 100% certainty, that I do not want that same journey for any child.

Early Symptoms of Mental Illness in Children

  • Changes in school performance, such as poor grades despite good efforts
  • Inability to cope with daily problems and activities
  • Changes in sleeping and/or eating habits
  • Excessive complaints of physical ailments such as headache or stomach ache
  • Intense fear of gaining weight
  • Long-lasting negative moods, often accompanied by poor appetite and thoughts of death
  • Frequent outbursts of anger
  • Loss of interest in friends and activities they usually enjoy
  • Significant increase in time spent alone
  • Excessive worrying or anxiety
  • Hyperactivity
  • Persistent nightmares or night terrors
  • Persistent disobedience or aggressive behavior
  • Frequent temper tantrums
  • Hearing voices or seeing things that are not there (hallucinations)

If you or another caregiver notice these signs in your child, it’s never too early or too late to find a child therapist in your area.

If you or a loved one are having thoughts of suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

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