Licensed psychologist Alissa Briggs, PhD, discusses how to recognize signs of mental health issues in children

Alissa Briggs, PhD

Mental health is an issue that has historically been overlooked and neglected in the United States. Thankfully, that seems to be changing as the stigma surrounding discussion of mental health lessens.

Maintaining sound mental health is an important part of child development. Mental health disorders are common in young people, and it’s important these issues are addressed as early as possible.  

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. To mark the occasion, Alissa Briggs, PhD, recently discussed with us warning signs of mental health issues in children. 

Briggs is a licensed psychologist and assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Kentucky specializing in adolescent medicine.    

What are some important things parents should understand about mental health related to children?  

Mental illness starts in early childhood and needs to be addressed early. Mental illness in children may manifest differently than in adults. While an adult with depression may appear slowed, sad, and withdrawn, a child with depression may simply seem irritable and/or obstinate. Children may have a difficult time understanding and naming their feelings, which may make them more prone to acting out. 

If your child seems irritable, prone to temper tantrums, and generally uncooperative – especially if this represents a gradual or sudden change in their attitude and behavior – they may be struggling with mental health issues.  

What type of disorders are most common with children?

Symptoms of mental health disorders often emerge during childhood or adolescence. Anxiety Disorders, Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, and Depression are the most likely threats to mental health in childhood. 

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and Eating Disorders also often emerge in childhood or adolescence. Other disorders that may be of concern include Behavior Disorders, Trauma and Stressor Related Disorders, and Tic Disorders. 

Earlier identification and treatment lead to better long-term outcomes. If your parental gut instinct tells you something is off, seek the advice of a medical or mental health professional without delay. 

What does research tell us about the prevalence of mental health issues within the younger population? 

There are different ways to estimate prevalence and different ratios depending on the source, but the general consensus is that between 1 in 5 to 1 in 6 children are affected. Here are some sources:

What are some more warning signs a child might be suffering from mental health issues? 

  • Irritability
  • Changes in sleep and appetite 
  • Loss of skills previously attained (regression in ability to do things for themselves and toileting accidents)
  • Temper tantrums that are either long lasting or result in the destruction of property
  • Harming themselves, harming others, or harming animals
  • Lack of interest in play 
  • Lack of interest in activities that used to give them joy/excitement
  • Excessive movement, running, and climbing (beyond what would be expected for the developmental level)
  • Repeating actions over and over again

What steps should a parent take if they are concerned about mental, behavioral, or emotional issues with their child? 

Make an appointment to discuss concerns with your pediatrician and reach out to your school mental health professional.

To schedule an appointment for your child or speak to a UK HealthCare provider, call the Adolescent Medicine Clinic at 859-323-5643.  

This content was produced by UK HealthCare Brand Strategy.

Topics in this Story

    Children-Mental Health