Children & Mental Illness


About 20% of American children suffer from a diagnosable mental illness during a given year, according to the U.S. Surgeon General. Further, nearly 5 million American children and adolescents suffer from a serious mental illness (one that significantly interferes with their day-to-day life).

Which Mental Illnesses Are Most Common in Children?

Children can suffer from the following mental illnesses:

  • Anxiety disorders: Responding to certain things/situations with fear and/or dread, physical signs of anxiety (nervousness), such as a rapid heartbeat and sweating.
  • Disruptive behavior disorders: Children tend to defy rules and often are disruptive in structured environments, such as school.
  • Pervasive development disorders:  Children are confused in thinking and generally have problems understanding the world around them.
  • Eating disorders: Involve intense emotions, attitudes and unusual behaviors associated with weight and/or food.
  • Elimination disorders: Affect behavior related to elimination of body wastes (feces and urine).
  • Learning and communication disorders: Problems storing/processing information and relating thoughts and ideas.
  • Affective (mood) disorders: Persistent feelings of sadness and/or rapidly changing moods.
  • Schizophrenia: Involves distorted perceptions and thoughts.
  • Tic disorders: Tics are repeated, sudden, involuntary and often meaningless movements and sounds.

Some of these illnesses, such as anxiety disorders, eating disorders, mood disorders and schizophrenia, can occur in adults as well as children. Others, such as behavior and development disorders, elimination disorders, and learning and communication disorders, begin in childhood only, although they can continue into adulthood. In rare cases, tic disorders can develop in adults. It is not unusual for a child to have more than one disorder.

What Are the Symptoms of Mental Illness in Children?

Symptoms vary depending on the type of mental illness, but some of the general symptoms include:

  • Abuse of drugs and/or alcohol
  • Inability to cope with daily problems and activities
  • Changes in sleeping and/or eating habits
  • Excessive complaints of physical ailments
  • Defying authority, skipping school, stealing or damaging property
  • Intense fear of gaining weight
  • Long-lasting negative moods, often accompanied by poor appetite and thoughts of death
  • Frequent outbursts of anger
  • Changes in school performance, such as poor grades despite good efforts
  • Loss of interest in friends and activities they usually enjoy
  • Significant increase in time spent alone
  • Excessive worrying or anxiety
  • Hyperactivity
  • Persistent nightmares or night terrors
  • Persistent disobedience or aggressive behavior
    Frequent temper tantrumsHearing voices or seeing things that are not there (hallucinations)

What Causes Mental Illness?

The exact cause of most mental disorders is not known, but research suggests that a combination of factors, including heredity, biology, psychological trauma and environmental stress, may be involved.

  • Heredity (genetics): Mental illness tends to run in families, which means the likelihood to develop a mental disorder may be passed on from parents to their children.
  • Biology: Some mental disorders have been linked to special chemicals in the brain called neurotransmitters. Neurotransmitters help nerve cells in the brain communicate with each other. If these chemicals are out of balance or not working properly, messages may not make it through the brain correctly, leading to symptoms. In addition, defects in or injury to certain areas of the brain also have been linked to some mental illnesses.
  • Psychological trauma: Some mental illnesses may be triggered by psychological trauma, such as severe emotional, physical or sexual abuse; an important early loss, such as the loss of a parent; and neglect.
  • Environmental stress: Stressful or traumatic events can trigger a mental illness in a person with a vulnerability to a mental disorder.