There is a persistent swirl of myths, inaccuracies, fears and assumptions that surround mental illnesses and their treatment. The origins of these beliefs are vague, but our mission is clear: educate adults and children about mental illness, start conversations, and promote appropriate treatment and care for children experiencing a range of mental, emotional or behavioral disorders. To accomplish this, we work hand-in-hand with parents, caregivers, physicians, therapists and the children themselves. In our work, these are the most common myths we encounter, and the facts that disprove them.
MYTH: “It’s just a phase,” or “He's faking it and just trying to get attention.”
FACT: While specific symptoms of mental illness may look like bad or strange behavior, or may not always be visible to the individuals around the child, symptoms are distinct and not part of normal childhood development. The causes and symptoms of mental health conditions are intensively studied and they are real. No one would choose to have a mental illness, just as no one would choose to have a physical illness. We may have a difficult time understanding what people with mental illnesses are going through, but that doesn’t make the illness any less real.
MYTH: “A child can’t have mental illness. They're too young.”
FACT: Even very young children may show signs of mental illness: some experience serious symptoms such as psychosis, uncontrolled rage, depression, and suicidal ideation. These mental health problems can typically be diagnosed by a psychiatrist or other qualified professional. Signs and symptoms of half of all mental health disorders begin before a child turns 14 years old, and three quarters of mental health disorders begin before age 24. Unfortunately, less than 20% of children and adolescents with diagnosable mental health problems receive the treatment they need. Early mental health support can help a child before problems interfere with other developmental needs.
MYTH: “If I seek help for my child, she will be branded for life,” or similarly, “A child with a psychiatric disorder is damaged for life.”
FACT: A psychiatric disorder is by no means an indication of a child’s potential for future happiness and fulfillment. If a child’s struggles are recognized and treated—the earlier the better—she has a good chance of managing or overcoming symptoms and developing into a healthy adult. The 2015 Child Mind Institute’s Children’s Mental Health Report shows that rates of effectiveness of treatment between 70 and 86% after 36 months for disorders like anxiety, depression, ADHD or OCD. In addition, a child’s diagnosis is not a label that he will have to endure throughout his life. In fact, helping a child understand what he or she is feeling by naming the cause of those feelings can be helpful and alleviate some of the child’s own fears.
MYTH: “My friends and family think mental illness is the result of bad parenting and they will judge me.”
FACT: Mental illness is not a side effect of bad parenting, but a combination of influences. Mental health disorders in children are caused by biology (genetics or biological factors such as a chemical), environment (abusive or neglectful treatment or stressful events), or a combination of both. As a parent, you are doing your best with the knowledge you have. While there is a lot of ignorance and unnecessary judgment, the more you learn and speak up, the easier it will get. Hiding the situation usually makes things worse.
MYTH: “Children will grow out of mental health problems.”
FACT: Children are less likely to “grow out” of psychiatric disorders than they are to “grow into” more debilitating conditions. Most mental health problems left untreated in childhood become more difficult to treat in adulthood. Since we know that most psychiatric disorders emerge before a child’s 14th birthday, we should have huge incentive to screen young people for emotional and behavioral problems.
It is so critical to understand that children experiencing mental illness are at the mercy of factors well out of their control and need the help and support of caring adults around them. If you overhear or are told one of these myths, we hope you will help end the stigma by sharing the facts that correct those inaccuracies.
For hope and healing,
As the director of communications for Clarity Child Guidance Center, Mike shares the insights of children’s mental health experts, both inside and outside of Clarity CGC, who work with families looking for answers about their children’s mental health.
If you are experiencing an emergency, please call 9-1-1. If you need help locating mental health resources in your area, visit the Bexar County Community Resource website, call your local health department or the National Alliance Mental Illness's helpline at 800-950- NAMI (6264).