Depressed child looking out the window

Why are kids today more prone to mental health disorders?

The rising concern that more kids and young people are suffering from mental health issues leads to one obvious question: Why? Mental disorders among children are described as serious changes in the way children typically learn, behave, or handle their emotions, causing them distress and problems in getting through the day. Blame is likely to fall on the ubiquity in young people’s lives of social media and its damaging effects, for example, through online bullying. But the causes are much more numerous and more complex and include poverty, dysfunctional family, being the victim of a sexual assault, exam stress, and many other reasons.

Common Mental Health Problems in Kids

These are some of the mental health disorders that have a severe impact on kids and young people.

When kids don’t outgrow the fears and worries that are common in young kids, they may have an anxiety disorder. Examples of different types of anxiety disorders are separation anxiety, phobias, social anxiety, general anxiety, and panic disorder. On the other hand, when kids feel persistent sadness and hopelessness, they may have depression issues. Kids with depression generally feel sad or irritable. They show changes in eating or sleeping patterns. Extreme depression can lead a child to think about suicide. Startlingly, for youth ages 10 to 24 years, suicide is one of the leading causes of death.  

Self-harm is a very prevalent problem among kids. For some young people, it helps them manage intense emotional pain if they harm themselves. Typically, it is found in kids as young as 11 or 12. As more kids are becoming aware of it, the more are engaging in self-harm. Digital media plays a significant role in this exposure. Moreover, self-harm is particularly common among girls.    

When kids show disruptive behaviors, they may have a behavior disorder. They argue, act angry or defiant around adults, lose their temper, and deliberately annoy others. Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD) is diagnosed when kids act out persistently, and it usually starts before eight years of age. Conduct Disorder (CD) is diagnosed when children show an ongoing pattern of aggression toward others, and serious violations of rules and social norms at home, in school, and with peers.

Children may have an obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) when unwanted thoughts, and the behaviors they feel they must do something about those thoughts, happen frequently. These activities take up a lot of time, interfere with their activities, and make them very upset. These thoughts are called obsessions, and these behaviors are called compulsions.

PTSD can follow physical, sexual or emotional abuse, witnessing something extremely frightening or traumatizing, being the victim of violence or crime, or surviving a disaster.

Consistently overactive kids behave impulsively and have difficulty paying attention. Such kids may have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Boys are more affected than their female counterparts. Genes, drug abuse, and exposure to environmental toxins, such as a high level of lead at a young age are some prevalent reasons. Brain injuries are also common factors that contribute to ADHD.

Eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa have serious consequences on young people. These disorders usually start in the teenage years and are more common in girls. Like other mental health disorders, eating disorders are not caused by a single factor but by a combination of sociocultural, psychological, and biological factors.  

Daunting Facts about Mental Health Disorders in the U.S. 

  • 9.4 percent of kids between 2 and 17 years of age have received an ADHD diagnosis.
  • 7.4 percent of kids aged 3 to 17 years have a diagnosed behavioral problem.
  • 7.1 percent of kids aged 3 to 17 years have anxiety problems.
  • 3.2 percent of kids have diagnosed depression.
  • 1 in 7 U.S. children aged 2–8 years (7.7 million children) had a diagnosed mental, behavioral, or developmental disorder.
  • Half of the young kids didn’t receive the needed treatment from a mental health professional.

Risk Factors of Mental Illness in Kids

Why are so many kids suffering from mental health disorders? The simple answer is that we don’t know for sure what is fueling this rise. About 50 percent of cases of mental illness begin by age 14, according to the American Psychological Association. A tendency to develop depression and bipolar disorder nearly doubles from age 13 to age 18. But research suggests several factors are at play:

  • Having a long-term physical illness
  • A genetic predisposition, infections, or injury
  • Having a parent who has had mental health problems, problems with alcohol or has been in trouble with the law
  • Experiencing the death of someone close to them
  • Social isolation 
  • Experiencing discrimination 
  • Having divorced parents
  • Having a poor, parent-child communication
  • Having been severely bullied or physically or sexually abused
  • Living in poverty or being homeless
  • Experiencing discrimination, perhaps because of their race, sexuality or religion
  • Acting as a career for a relative, taking on adult responsibilities
  • Having enduring educational worries

It is becoming clear through research that many of these mental health conditions are caused by a combination of biological, psychological, and environmental factors. Research suggests that some mental health disorders may run in families. For instance, if your parent is suffering from schizophrenia, there are more chances (28 percent) that you may develop this disorder yourself. Research shows that a quarter of young people aged 5 to 19 years who have been suffering from mental disorder were in a dysfunctional family

Children today are facing huge pressures, specifically as they reach teenage years: from apprehension about getting good grades and about getting a dream job, to fears about body image, fueled by a hyper-sexualized media environment. With the proliferation of technology, digital media has transformed childhood. It has brought some serious threats like cyberbullying.

Generally, things that happen to young kids don’t lead to mental health issues on their own, but disturbing events can prompt glitches for kids who are already susceptible. Changes often act as triggers, for example, moving school or birth of a new sibling. Most kids feel thrilled about making new friends when they start school; on the other hand, some feel nervous about entering a new environment.

Teens are more prone to mental health disorders as they experience emotional turmoil. Through the developmental phase, it becomes difficult for them to work out and accept who they are. Some teens find it hard to make this transition and may prefer experimentation with alcohol or drugs that can have a severe effect on their mental health. Among these teens, the use of social media, commonly attributed to causing much of the epidemic of mental illness in young people, is found to be an important possible explanation too. According to a recent research study, 29.4% of those aged 11 to 19 with a disorder spent more than four hours a day on social media, just 12% of those displaying no symptoms did the same thing.

Phone screen and teenager suffering from cyberbullying

Young people with mental disorders compare themselves with others on social media. The comments and likes alter their moods. They also spend more time on social media than suggested by experts. They also admit that they could not be honest about their feelings on social media platforms. Results from a recent study showed that the more time kids spend on social media, they are more likely to have sleeping problems and eating disorders. Concluding all these points, social media can be destructive for young adults for the following reasons: 

  • Focus on likes and comments
  • Cyberbullying
  • Making comparisons
  • Having too many fake friends
  • Less social interaction

What To Do?

Parental Help

  • Parenthood doesn’t come with a manual. You have to figure out what works best to help your child.
  • Before you label your child’s outbursts as a lack of control or mental illness, look for a simple explanation for what is going on, and why your kid is acting indifferent. Arm yourself with adequate information about mental health red flags, and look for the warning signs before it is too late.
  • Do your best to create a healthy environment in your home. If you and your spouse get in a fight, keep it away from kids. Appreciate your kids for the little things, and let them know that you love them. 
  • Let your child know that you are always there for them if they want to share their feelings. They can talk to you about any difficult situation they are facing. When they do come to you, listen to them, and take their feelings seriously. 
  • If your kid is feeling down, let them have their space and discuss issues later when they have recouped control over themselves.   
  • Your kid relies on you to help regain a sense of calm and stability. So, don’t panic, soften your voice, and use clear directions, like: “Take it easy,” “Take a deep breath,” “It’s Okay. Tell me what happened?” etc.
  • Monitor your kid’s phone to look for signs of mental illness. You could use parental control apps to comprehend what is going on in their social circle. You can get an affirmative explanation for your child’s changed behavior when you monitor their online activity.
  • Routines give a sense of stability to children and teens, especially those who struggle with anxiety. Limit their screen time, and keep both bedtime and wakeup time in mind to create a healthy routine. 

Professional Help

If your child is having problems at school, a teacher or a school counselor can help. Otherwise, you can consult a professional. Describe the behavior that concerns you. Common treatment options for children who have mental health conditions include psychotherapy and medication. Your child’s doctor can recommend to you what might work best for your child after a thorough analysis. 

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