#9: What happens when mental illness in children/teenagers is left untreated

According to the World Health Organization: “Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease and infirmity. Mental health is an integral part of this definition” (WHO, 2019).

Recent statistics reveal that 1 in 5 children/teenagers have a mental disorder/illness, yet only 20 percent receive treatment. We also know that 50 percent of all lifetime mental illnesses show signs and symptoms by age 14 and 75 percent of all mental disorders show signs/symptoms by age 24. Research also shows that using proven treatment methods and supports, 70 to 90 percent of children/teenagers will experience a significant reduction in symptoms, and 45 to 60 percent make a complete recovery. Psychiatric experts, tell us that identifying, addressing and treating symptoms early can mitigate damage to young peoples mental health, and will likely prevent severe mental health problems later in life.

Given what we have learned from the statement above, and from the previous blog posts about adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), the harmful effects of bullying on mental health, and the subsequent changes in the brain that occur when a child/teenager is traumatised, and/or is experiencing a mental disorder, the question is, what happens to children and teenagers who do not receive any help or treatment?

What you need to know

  • Only 38 percent of kids with mood disorders receive help
  • Only 15 percent with substance use disorder/addiction get help
  • Only 13 percent of eating disorder sufferers get help
  • Less than 40 percent of kids with PTSD receive help

We know, that children/teenagers who are bullied, are three to four times more likely to develop physical and mental health issues, may have difficulties trusting others, and making/keeping positive personal, professional and social relationships. If the bullying is not addressed, and appropriate help and supports not given, there is a significantly high risk of the victim, the bully and even the bystanders turning to substance use, developing life long mental health problems, having academic and behaviour problems and exhibiting violent behaviour throughout adulthood (please refer to Blog 6,Blog 7). We also know that certain mental disorders are established risk factors for developing a substance use disorder (please see Blog 8). 

If a child/teenager is dealing with the early signs and symptoms of a mental disorder, and/or side effects from psychiatric medications and is not receiving appropriate care and supports, it is highly likely, in an attempt to cope with the changes and emotional distress, he/she may seek other ways to help cope.

What happens if mental illness is not treated in a child/teenager?

  • Relationship issues
  • Increased likelihood of being bullied or becoming a bully
  • Social isolation and exclusion
  • Develop another mental disorder e.g. anxiety, eating disorder, PTSD. 45 percent of those with a single mental illness also met criteria for two or more disorders
  • Insomnia or sleep disorder (high correlation between insomnia and suicide)
  • Frequent hospitalization
  • Poor grades or dropout of school: 50 percent of kids with untreated mental illness will drop our of school
  • Unemployment
  • Join a gang and/or engage in criminal activities,
  • 10 times more likely to be a victim of a violent crime
  • Engage in risky behaviours e.g. prostitution, driving under influence
  • Incarceration: 70 percent of kids in a state or local juvenile system have a mental illness.
  • Homelessness: 20 to 50 percent of homeless kids have a mental illness
  • Substance use/addiction: Up to 70 percent of those with a severe mental illness abuse alcohol and drugs
  • Attempt suicide: 90 percent of children/teenagers who died by suicide, had an underlying mental illness. Suicide is the second leading cause of death ages 5 to 24 yrs. old
  • Death: mental and substance use disorders that go untreated, lead to more deaths than breast cancer, HIV/AIDS, and motor vehicles accidents combined.

What can you do?
If your (a) child/teenager is:

  • Showing signs and symptoms of a mental disorder/illness and/or substance abuse disorder
  • Self-harming (NSSI)
  • Being bullied
  • Skipping school or failing class
  • Withdrawing from friends and/or family
  • Talking about death, suicide and/or is feeling anxious, sad, hopeless, etc.
  • Scared or expresses reluctance to see a family member, neighbor, etc.
  • Is experiencing rapid weight loss
  • Is violent and/or plays with weapons
  • Is abusive/nasty to siblings, family, animals
  • Hearing voices or is fixated on something which is not true
  • Has experienced a traumatic event
  • Or seems different, strange, not usual self

First Step
Please talk with and listen to him/her. Observe manner, behavior, body language, what is being said, what is not being said. It is imperative that a parent, trusted adult be there for the child/teenager. Be kind, supportive, understanding and non-judgmental. Do not shout, berate, ignore, blame, laugh, disregard, shame or invalidate the child/teenager.

This is when you are most needed. Show love, compassion and reinforce that you will always be there and will help him/her through his difficult time. Healing must begin from the inside out and should encompass a holistic approach and may include meditation and mindfulness, exercise, healthy diet, therapy, selfcare strategies, play therapy, family therapy, medications, social connectedness with self, family and friends.

Next Step
Get help. Schedule an appointment with the Doctor, be honest and open minded, request a thorough examination and assessment (physical and cognitive/mental). Be supportive and involve child/teenager in treatment plan. Talk with other family, school and friends to determine best strategies to help empower child/teenager through this difficult time. Be a caring and responsible parent, be consistent, follow the treatment plan, spend one on one time with child/teenager, monitor behavior, side effects of medication, etc.

In my next Blog #10
I will be discussing Bipolar Disorder (BPD) and Disruptive Mood Dysregulation Disorder (DMDD) in children and teenagers

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