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The Importance of Understanding Your Child’s Mental Health

The mental health crisis among children in South Africa is growing, due to socio-political and socio-economic circumstances. The increasing stress of modern life poses emotional demands on children, which they cannot meet in terms of their developmental level and age. Research has shown that, “two-thirds of children in South Africa live in poverty and nearly one in two children have experienced some form of violence (physical violence and/or sexual abuse)”.

While child mental health has been an issue of debate for many years, it is often overlooked, because when we typically think of mental health and mental health issues, we often associate it with adults. Research, however, has shown that approximately 10% to 20% of children and adolescents experience mental health conditions. While in South Africa, only one in ten children who experience a mental health condition will have access to care. The former causes a ripple effect where children, in the absence of intervention, support and the necessary care, find it more difficult to cope with life stressors while hindering their ability to grow into healthy functional adults.

A closer look at Child Mental Health

Child mental health can be defined as the complete well-being and optimal development of a child’s social, emotional, cognitive, and behavioural domains. Childhood and adolescence are critical stages of development. During these periods, children and adolescents grapple with unique and distinct developmental and emotional milestones while learning healthy social skills and how to cope when there are problems.

Good mental health enables children and adolescents to navigate these developmental milestones but also, aids in the development of resilience and skills to cope with life stressors and can function well at home, in school, and their communities.

Mental health difficulties among children are described as changes in the way children typically learn, behave, or handle emotions, which cause distress and difficulties in getting through the day. Often mental health challenges directly respond to what is happening in their lives and often interfere with school, home, or play activities. Failure to address mental health difficulties in children and adolescents has long-term consequences that extend into adulthood and limit their opportunities to lead fulfilling lives and reach their full potential.

Key Areas of Functioning and Risk Factors

As children grow, they develop in various ways. The key areas of functioning and development include emotional, social, cognitive, and physical domains. How children behave, think, form relationships, and acquire physical skills paint a picture of their development. While every child develops at their own pace, there are general skills they should acquire at specific ages, known as developmental milestones.

How children successfully reach their developmental milestones in each stage of their development depends significantly on their environment. The quality of the environment in which children are nurtured shapes their well-being and development. Early negative experiences (family, schools, violence, social media, poverty, etc.) and the unsuccessful resolution of such experiences increase the risk of mental illness. Genetics also pose a risk to the development of a mental illness, however, the exposure to a parent or caregiver’s mental illness can also increase the risk of mental illness.

Bad experiences alone don’t necessarily lead to mental health problems in children; however, traumatic events can trigger problems in already vulnerable children. Therefore, non-supportive and containing environments may lead to the development of unhealthy coping skills and ultimately mental illness. Alternatively, consistent supportive interactions may facilitate the development of healthy coping skills as well as greater prospects for healthy mental health.

Common Childhood and Adolescent Mental Disorders?

The mental health issues children may experience may be reflected as difficulties in their key areas of functioning. When these issues are constant, are severe, and cause disturbances to normal functioning (at home, school and in social situations), they are defined as mental health disorders.

  • Specific Learning Difficulties in Reading, Writing and Numeracy
  • ADHD
  • Mood disorders
  • Anxiety Disorders
  • Adjustment disorders
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder
  • Adjustment Disorders
  • Feeding and Eating Disorders
  • Attachment Difficulties
  • Substance-related disorders

What to look out for in your child and/or adolescent (Red Flags):

  • Changes in your child’s mood, behaviour, and personality
  • Persistent sadness or withdrawal/avoiding social interactions.
  • Extreme irritability, often leading to outbursts.
  • Thinking or talking about death/suicide
  • Self-harm
  • Changes in eating and sleeping habits.
  • Academic decline and negative behavioural and attitude changes at school
  • Difficulties concentrating and completing tasks.
  • Acquiring new habits and fears.
  • Changes in speech and ability to learn.

What to do if you think your child has mental health concerns

If you have reasons for concern, talk to your child’s teacher and other caregivers to see if they have noticed any changes in your child’s mood or behaviour. Seek professional help, such as your doctor (to eliminate medical problems) or seek the help of a psychologist for interventions that can promote your child’s well-being and prevent the escalation of problems.

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