Authored by Revere Health

Mental Illness in Children

November 8, 2018 | Family Medicine

Like adults, children can be affected by depression, anxiety and other types of mental illness. According to data from the Child Mind Institute, one in five school-age children has a mental illness or learning disability, so parents should understand the signs and symptoms of the most common mental illnesses that impact children. Although these conditions can be serious, they are also treatable.

Most Common Mental Illnesses

According to data from the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), 20 percent of adolescents (ages 13 to 18) have a mental health condition. Eleven percent of those in this group have a mood disorder, 10 percent have a behavior disorder and eight percent have an anxiety disorder. NAMI notes that 50 percent of adults who have mental illness noticed symptoms by age 14, and 75 percent by age 24.

The most prevalent forms of mental illness in U.S. children and adolescents include:

  • Attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Anxiety disorders, including general anxiety, separation anxiety, social phobia, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and obsessive-compulsive disorder
  • Eating disorders, including anorexia, bulimia and binge eating
  • Mood disorders, including depression and bipolar disorder


In most cases, doctors aren’t sure what causes childhood mental illness. Several factors are thought to play a role, including environmental stressors, trauma history, family history and biology. Children whose parents or other relatives have a mental illness are more likely to be affected themselves.


Although each type of mental illness has distinctive diagnostic criteria, some signs and symptoms can alert parents about emotional issues that need attention. These include but are not limited to:

  • Worries and fears that interfere with school and home life
  • Withdrawal or sadness lasting more than a week or two
  • Problems with home and school relationships
  • Loss of interest in activities and hobbies
  • Mood swings and/or angry outbursts
  • Reckless or out-of-character behavior, such as fighting or stealing
  • Unexplained weight loss
  • Change in eating habits
  • Panic attacks, characterized by elevated breathing and heart rate
  • Inability to cope with minor stressors
  • Night terrors or nightmares
  • Hyperactivity
  • Frequent temper tantrums
  • Aggression
  • Persistent disobedience
  • Poor school performance
  • Trouble focusing or sitting still
  • Unexplained physical complaints such as headaches or stomach aches
  • Disrupted sleep
  • Substance abuse
  • Self-harm
  • Talking about suicide or fixation on death


Pediatric and adolescent care for mental health issues varies depending on the exact diagnosis, but it often relies on a combination of therapy and medication. Psychotherapy, for example, provides kids a chance to express their thoughts and feelings in a safe space. They learn techniques for coping with difficult emotions and managing stress and anxiety. Family counseling can help guide parental support and strengthen these critical relationships.

A provider may suggest medication if therapy alone is ineffective or when symptoms are especially severe. Some of the most common prescriptions approved to treat childhood mental health disorders include anti-depressants, anti-anxiety medications, mood stabilizers or stimulants for ADHD.

Parents who are concerned about their child’s mental health and have noticed the signs described above should talk with their doctor. He or she will evaluate your child’s behavior and medical history to determine the cause of the troubling symptoms. In some cases, referral to a specialist may be recommended.

Revere Health Orem Family Medicine is devoted to comprehensive healthcare for patients of all ages and providing thorough and timely healthcare for the entire family throughout all stages of life.



“ADHD.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“2016 Children’s Mental Health Report.” Child Mind Institute.

“Mental Illness in Children: Know the Signs.” Mayo Clinic.

“Mental Health Facts: Children and Teens.” National Alliance on Mental Illness.

“Mental Illness in Children.” WebMD.

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This information is not intended to replace the advice of a medical professional. You should always consult your doctor before making decisions about your health.