When to be concerned about your child’s mental wellness, and what you can do

By Maddison Toney, Intern

At a NAMI conference in Ohio, actor Wil Wheaton (of Big Bang Theory, Star Trek, and Wonder Years fame), shared his experience with mental illness. His struggle with depression and anxiety began in childhood. This was complicated by parents and other adults not understanding his need for help. Like Wheaton, 1 in 5 U.S. children suffer from a diagnosable mental health disorder. Yet only 21 percent of these children receive the necessary care. However, the good news is that there is help available. Knowing the warning signs is the first step. And it starts with parents and other caregivers.

How can I tell?

Warning signs that a child may need behavioral health care may appear as early as 3 years old. If your child or teen displays any of the following behaviors, they may need help from you, and possibly a physician or behavioral healthcare provider:

  • Feeling sad or acting withdrawn for more than 2 weeks
  • Self-injury, such as: hitting, cutting, hair pulling, or even discussing, planning, or attempting suicide.
  • Sudden, overwhelming fear
  • Significant mood swings that effect relationships
  • Severe, uncontrolled behavior with potential of harm to self or others (such as frequent fighting, or expressing desire for harm)
  • Drug or alcohol use

What should I say?

You may feel uncertain about out to talk with your child or teen about these concerns. It’s important to do so in a way that assures them they are cared for and safe. Some ways to do this are to: choose a time and location where your child feels safe; speak in a calm, appropriate tone; be straightforward about your concerns; listen openly.  Some helpful questions to ask are:

  • “Sometimes you need to talk to an adult about your feelings. I’m here to listen. How can I help you feel better?”
  • “Can you tell me more about what is happening? How are you feeling?”
  • “Would you ever tell me if you have thoughts about harming yourself or others?”

What if I am not the child’s parent or guardian?

You may be concerned about a child or teen in your classroom, on your sports team, theatre group, Sunday school, or other activity. If you observe the warning signs of behavioral health concerns, you can help. If you suspect abuse or neglect, report your observations to PA Childline. If you do not suspect abuse or neglect, reach out to the parents or caregiver. Share your observations and ask if they are noticing anything unusual at home. You can offer support by encouraging them to see their primary care or behavioral healthcare provider. There are also other local resources that you can encourage friends and family to join like the Community Support Program, educational programs or support groups to involve themselves in the community. The overall goal is to support the child and family by fostering a safe and positive environment for the children you lead.

Learn more about warning signs, screenings, and support for children’s behavioral health needs.