Does My Child Have a Mental Health, Emotional or Behavioral Disorder?
Among all the dilemmas facing a parent of a child with emotional or behavioral problems, the first question — whether the child’s behavior is sufficiently different to require a comprehensive evaluation by professionals — may be the most troublesome of all. Even when a child exhibits negative behaviors, members of a family may not all agree on whether the behaviors are serious.
‘I Feel Amazing’: Teen Touts Transformative Help from PACER
Recently, 16-year-old Darcey Hayes joined PACER staff and supporters at PACER’s Day at the Capitol. When she arrived at the Minnesota State Capitol, she marched in to meet her state representative, Ron Kresha.
The sophomore from Upsala is the president of the PACER Youth Advisory Board. Though not able to lobby or talk about legislation, she can share how special education works and her experience with it.
Youth Advisory Board
The Youth Advisory Board members give presentations at national and statewide conferences as well as at school staff trainings. By speaking frankly about their experiences with mental health needs, they give audiences insight into the day-to-day struggles of having mental health issues, ways they have managed these issues, and ways that teachers, providers, parents, and peers can give appropriate support. The following are examples of their activities in the community.
How well do you know your Mental Health Facts?
Having a mental health challenge or a behavioral disorder is more common than most people imagine. In fact, children are diagnosed with mental health disorders at a rate of 6.8% and at an even higher rate in adolescence. It is likely that each of us has known someone with a mental health or behavioral challenge or had one ourselves. Mental health disorders don’t discriminate based on age, race, gender, ethnicity, occupation, religion, economic class, or ethnic background. Misconceptions about mental health can contribute to the lack of funding and public support for effective treatment and supports for children and young adults.
Check Your Knowledge
True or False: Mental illnesses can be cured with willpower.
False. A mental illness does not stem from character flaws, and willpower doesn’t cure a mental illness. Mental illness is a category of many different mental disorders such as depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, anorexia, or bipolar disorder. Current research provides a better understanding of how the brain works and what happens when a child, youth, or adult experience challenges with thought, mood, behavior, or interactions with others. Just as cancer, heart disease, or diabetes are medical conditions, so is mental illness.
To learn more about mental illness and brain research:
True or False: A youth who has biological parents with a mental illness will also develop a mental illness.
False. Research has found that having a biological relative such as a parent, grandparent, or sibling with a mental illness is a risk factor; it does not determine whether someone will develop a mental illness. Other risk factors associated with developing a mental illness include having a chronic medical condition, experiencing abuse as a child, experiencing traumatic life situations, exposure to toxins such as alcohol during pregnancy, or misuse of substances including alcohol or drugs. Research demonstrates that protective factors can help to counteract these risk factors. Examples of protective factors include a good social support system, adequate food, safe shelter, financial security, good problem-solving skills, and access to positive recreational activities.
True or False: Children and teens can have a mental illness.
True. Childhood mental health disorder is a term used to explain all mental disorders that can be diagnosed and begin in childhood. Many adults who have a diagnosed psychiatric disorder experienced the onset of their symptoms in adolescence or childhood. Embarrassment, fear, peer pressure, lack of community support, and stigma can prevent or delay a person from getting help. Early intervention is important to managing and recovering from mental health challenges.
To learn more about children’s mental health:
True or False: Children or youth with mental health challenges never get better.
False. With the right kind of medical care, many children and youth who experience mental health challenges can and do lead healthy, productive, and satisfying daily lives. While the illness may not go away, the symptoms or challenges can be managed with appropriate treatment and support. Many individuals benefit from supports and interventions that are evidence-based and guided by principles of self-determination, recovery, and cultural competency.
To learn more about leading healthy, productive, and satisfying daily lives:
True or False: When children or youth receive a mental health diagnosis, they will have to take medications.
False. A mental health diagnosis does not always mean the child or youth will need to take medications. Some children and youth benefit from medications as part of their overall treatment plan, but there are other interventions that can be considered.
True or False: People with mental illnesses are violent.
False. The majority of people living with a mental illness are not violent and are not at risk of becoming violent. One research study looked at violence risk among people with serious mental illness and found a mental health diagnosis is not a significant indicator of whether a person will be violent. Factors that do tell us something about whether a person might be at risk for violence include: (1) a history of violent victimization early in life; (2) substance use; and (3) exposure to violence in their environment. There are a small number of individuals who experience mental health challenges that can include aggression. For these individuals, access to treatment, supports, and timely intervention are necessary components for recovery.
To learn more about mental health and violence:
True or False: Having a mental illness is different than having an intellectual impairment.
True. Many people confuse mental illnesses with intellectual disabilities, but they are different from each other. Mental illnesses are medical conditions that disrupt a person’s thinking, mood, daily functioning, or ability to relate to others. Intellectual disabilities are a type of developmental disability characterized by significant limitations in both intellectual functioning (e.g., a person’s IQ or intellectual quotient) and adaptive behavior (social and practical skills). Individuals who have an intellectual disability are more susceptible to developing a mental illness.
To learn more about mental illness and intellectual impairment:
True or False: All youth who misuse drugs or alcohol are choosing not to get their act together.
False. Youth who misuse drugs or alcohol may be doing so to self-medicate because of an unidentified or untreated mental health condition. They may also be struggling with an addiction that requires medical intervention. Ongoing alcohol and drug use can play a role in the development or worsening of some mental health symptoms and disorders. A youth struggling with alcohol or chemical use could benefit from a comprehensive professional evaluation to identify possible treatment or supports.
True or False: Parents who have a mental illness can be good parents.
True. The qualities that make “good parents” apply to all parents, including those who live with a mental illness. Some parents may require extra assistance with parenting tasks when faced with any medical condition or health challenge including a mental illness. Unfortunately, parents face significant barriers to accessing treatments and parenting supports because of the stigma associated with mental illness. Family life can be healthy and meaningful when both parents and children acknowledge and understand the illness, have support, and communicate with each other about the issues.
To learn more about parenting with a mental illness:
True or False: Schools have a responsibility to help children with mental health challenges.
True. Children are required to attend school. Public schools are required to provide education for all students, including those with disabilities. There are options for a child with mental health challenges who is having difficulty with school, including both informal and formal supports. An informal support could be attending a “friendship group” or having a “check-in” person. A formal support might include having a 504 Plan, or doing an evaluation for Special Education services. Some schools have school-wide initiatives to promote the mental health and wellness of all students. These might include positive behavior interventions and supports (PBIS), social-emotional learning (SEL) , school-linked mental health services, bullying prevention initiatives, trauma-informed care, and youth mental health crisis response services.
To learn more about supports in schools:
- apa.org – working with ethno-culturally diverse population
- casel.org – effective social and emotional learning programs
- PBISmn.org - research
- nami.org – diverse communities
- pbis.org – positive behavior support for family
- samhsa.gov – serving the needs of diverse populations
- usf.edu– school based mental health services
Frequently Requested Resources
Are you receiving frequent calls from school about your child having behavior problems? Would you like to feel more confident and prepared when attending a school meeting about your child’s behavior needs? This PACER publication can help you with strategies to more effectively communicate with school staff about your child’s challenging behaviors. It also includes questions you and your child’s school team can consider to help you better understand your child and their behavior needs.
What’s really going on when your child throws a tantrum or has an extreme behavior that can’t be easily calmed? This PACER publication discusses behavior as a form of communication, identifies different factors that can influence a child’s behavior, and provides positive strategies for responding to challenging behavior
Tips for Teachers, Principals and School Support staff from Students with mental health and behavioral disabilities
Does your child with mental health needs tell you their teachers don’t understand them? Do you wish you had a resource for school staff that helped them better understand their challenges? Written by youth with mental health and behavioral challenges, this PACER publication provides ideas for parents to share with teachers, principals and school support staff when working with students with mental health needs.
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Student Success Stories
Hello. My name is Oliver and I am 19 years old. I am a recent high school graduate and have been a Youth Board member and officer for 5 years. This fall I will be attending the University of Iowa.
I have lots of hobbies including reading, listening to music, traveling, and watching sports.
Anxiety has been a major challenge for me, and I have discovered that reading is a good coping tool. It kind of settles me down.
The best tip I could give you today would be to see each and every person through their abilities and not their disabilities.