By Kristy Wilson
October 5-11th will mark the 24th annual Mental Health Awareness Week in the United States. This week denotes the efforts being made by the National Association of Mental Illness (NAMI) and organizations across the nation to bring awareness and programming to those in need of mental health services. Despite valiant efforts, services for those impacted by mental health symptoms are still fewer and further between than are needed. To say that the demand exceeds the supply is an understatement and the funding for the programs that are in existence is at times barely enough to sustain programming.
It is not uncommon to encounter wait lists for mental health services. All this to say that when asked the following question as a social worker in the Champaign-Urbana community “I am struggling with [insert mental health symptoms or diagnosis here] what do I do?” I hope that I can help the person find what they need.
Navigating resources for children’s behavioral health needs can be particularly challenging due to their age and inability to verbalize what he/she is experiencing. So what does one do when he/she suspects that there child is struggling with mental health symptoms? Depending on the severity of the symptoms, this answer may differ; however, the steps below are a starting point in the journey:
1. Attempt to talk with your child about what you are observing and find out if they notice it to. See if your child can tell you a reason that they are feeling or acting in the particular way (i.e. being picked on in school, a break-up with a boyfriend/girlfriend, not feeling like he/she fits in, struggling academically, etc.). Do not press the issue too much. If a child is struggling with particular symptoms and they refuse to acknowledge changes in mood or behavior, then note this.
Note: this can be challenging with younger children, but still worth trying.
2. Talk with other trusted people in the child’s life (i.e. your partner or spouse, a grandparent or other family member, a teacher, a coach, a close family friend, etc.) that may be able to give insight about your child’s behaviors and takes notes about their responses.
3. Write down notes about the behaviors that you are witnessing, the duration of symptoms, the severity of symptoms on a scale of 1-10, and how/how much the behaviors are impacting your child’s life. This will come in handy if you choose to seek further help.
4. Take inventory of any history of diagnosed or suspected medical and mental health conditions. Though it is hard, do not spend a lot of time trying to diagnose your own child by comparing him/her to other family members. Having this list prepared along with the list above will prepare you for the next step should it become necessary.
5. Seek professional help-
*Please know that this might look different for everyone based on the severity of the behaviors being observed. However, if the child is not at risk of harming themselves or others, then I would suggest starting with a visit to his/her pediatrician or primary care provider.*
Pediatrician/Primary Care provider: Can rule out symptoms that may be caused by medical conditions and treated as such. For example, since the age of 8 years old my primary care physician has monitored my thyroid levels via a simple blood test due to a family history of thyroid disease. Eventually my thyroid did stop functioning properly and many of the symptoms I displayed very closely resembled depression symptoms. However, after some blood work it was determined that I was severely hyper-thyroid at the time and needed to be placed on medications. If your child’s primary care provider determines that there is nothing wrong, then explore the options with the provider for moving forward with seeking help.
Psychiatric/Behavioral Health Specialists: If the behaviors are not determined to be directly related to a general medical condition, then asking for a referral to a psychiatrist/behavioral specialist might be the next right step. I am not condoning the unnecessary use of medications. I wholeheartedly believe that some issues (not all) can be resolved or improved with dietary changes, exercise and various forms of talk therapy. However, if the behaviors are persistent and severe enough and parents feel like they have tried everything, then getting an opinion from a medical doctor specializing in behavior disorders cannot hurt. Moving forward with medications is a personal choice and should be evaluated by the family before moving forward.
Therapy/Counseling Services: “Whew! Glad I got that off my chest!” is that age-old adage showing how much talking with someone can alleviate a person’s built up tension, fear, anxiety, sadness, etc. An outside opinion about situations we are facing in life can bring new approaches, ideas and understanding. It allows people to process what is going on in their lives. Often therapy with children is done through play, role playing activities, and other creative approaches that allow children to feel heard and understood without the pressure of sitting in a chair across from someone in a room and talking directly about his/her feelings. I always say “I believe that everyone at some point in his/her life needs therapy/counseling, but whether he/she chooses to acknowledge the need and seek services is a whole other story.”
By no means is the list above perfect in every situation, or a complete list of all the steps to take in every situation. However, it will hopefully serve as a starting off point for those needing to navigate resources in the community. Below is a list of resources and providers in the Champaign-Urbana community that can provide more information about childhood mental illness and how to find help.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are mine alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of my employer.
Kristy Wilson considers herself a “towney” having lived in the community for 24 years. She grew up in Unit #4 schools and attended the University of Illinois. Kristy is passionate about her work with youth and families in the community and is interested in how nutrition affects youth’s behavioral health. Kristy is a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW) with a degree concentrated in community and mental health.