Mental Illness in Children

  • Medical Author:
    Roxanne Dryden-Edwards, MD

    Dr. Roxanne Dryden-Edwards is an adult, child, and adolescent psychiatrist. She is a former Chair of the Committee on Developmental Disabilities for the American Psychiatric Association, Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland, and Medical Director of the National Center for Children and Families in Bethesda, Maryland.

  • Medical Editor: Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD
    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist with subspecialty training in the fields of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Dr. Stöppler's educational background includes a BA with Highest Distinction from the University of Virginia and an MD from the University of North Carolina. She completed residency training in Anatomic Pathology at Georgetown University followed by subspecialty fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and experimental pathology.

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What are symptoms and signs of mental illness in children?

Children with mental illness may experience the classic symptoms of their particular disorder but may exhibit other symptoms as well, including

  • poor school performance;
  • persistent boredom;
  • frequent complaints of physical symptoms, such as headaches and stomachaches;
  • sleep and/or appetite problems like sleeping too much or too little, nightmares, or sleepwalking;
  • behaviors returning to those of a younger age (regressing), like bedwetting, throwing tantrums, or becoming clingy;
  • more risk-taking behaviors and/or showing less concern for their own safety.

Examples of risk-taking behaviors include running into the street, climbing too high, engaging in physical altercations, or playing with unsafe items.

How is mental illness in children diagnosed?

Many health-care professionals may help make the diagnosis of a mental illness in children, including licensed mental-health therapists, pediatricians or other primary-care providers, emergency physicians, psychiatrists, psychologists, psychiatric nurses, and social workers. One of these professionals will likely conduct an extensive medical interview and physical examination or refer the child for those assessments as part of establishing the diagnosis.

Childhood mental illnesses may be associated with a number of other medical conditions or can be a side effect of various medications. For this reason, routine laboratory tests are often performed during the initial evaluation to rule out other causes of symptoms. Occasionally, an X-ray, scan, or other imaging study may be needed. As part of this examination, the child and his or her parents may be asked a series of questions from a standardized questionnaire or self-test to help further assess symptoms. The use of screening tools is particularly important for detecting early signs of mental illness in infants and toddlers, due to their being largely preverbal in their communication.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 2/20/2015

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