Mental Illness in Children (cont.)

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What are causes and risk factors for mental illness in children?

As is the case with most mental-health disorders at any age, such disorders in children do not have one single definitive cause. Rather, people with these illnesses tend to have a number of biological, psychological, and environmental risk factors that contribute to their development. Biologically, mental illnesses tend to be associated with abnormal levels of neurotransmitters, like serotonin or dopamine in the brain, a decrease in the size of some areas of the brain, as well as increased activity in other areas of the brain. Girls are more likely to be diagnosed with mood disorders like depression and anxiety compared to boys, while disorders like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and autism spectrum disorders are more often assigned to boys. Gender differences in mental illness are thought to be the result of, among other things, a combination of biological differences based on gender, as well as the differences in how girls are encouraged to interpret their environment and respond to it compared to boys. There is thought to be at least a partially genetic contribution to the fact that children and adolescents with a mentally ill parent are up to four times more likely to develop such an illness themselves. Teens who develop a mental disorder are also more prone to having had other biological challenges, like low birth weight, trouble sleeping, and having a mother younger than 18 years old at the time of their birth.

Psychological risk factors for mental illness in children include low self-esteem, poor body image, a tendency to be highly self-critical, and feeling helpless when dealing with negative events. Teen mental disorders are somewhat associated with the stress of body changes, including the fluctuating hormones of puberty, as well as teen ambivalence toward increased independence, and with changes in their relationships with parents, peers, and others. Teenagers who suffer from conduct disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), clinical anxiety, or who have cognitive and learning problems, as well as trouble relating to others are at higher risk of also developing a mental disorder.

Childhood mental illness may be a reaction to environmental stresses, including trauma like being the victim of verbal, physical, or sexual abuse, the death of a loved one, school problems, or being the victim of bullying or peer pressure. Gay teens are at higher risk for developing mental disorders like depression, thought to be because of the bullying by peers and potential rejection by family members. Children in military families have been found to be at risk for experiencing depression as well.

The aforementioned environmental risk factors tend to specifically predispose individuals to childhood mental illness. Other risk factors tend to predispose people to developing a mental disorder at any age. Such nonspecific risk factors include a history of poverty, exposure to violence, having an antisocial peer group, or being socially isolated, abuse victimization, parental conflict, and family dissolution. Children who have low physical activity, poor academic performance, or lose a relationship are at higher risk for mental illness as well.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 12/18/2013