What are Childhood Mental Disorders?


Back-to-Directory A health article about Childhood Mental Disorders from Mental Health Problemsdealing with Health Problems & nutritional Self Care Strategies

Childhood is often associated with happiness and trouble-free fun, so when a child is diagnosed with a mental illness, the parents often feel like they’ve done something wrong, like it’s their fault.

This isn’t always the case though, as the causes of mental illness are complex and never involve only one factor.

Most disorders are not specific to childhood or adolescence, however the symptoms usually develop during this period.


• 1 in 10 children between the ages of 6 and 12 experience persistent feelings of sadness

• 11.2% of all children have the symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder

• Approximately 3% of children 17 & under have a conduct disorder

• Autism occurs in as many as 5 out of 10,000 children

• Up to 10% of women suffer an eating disorder during adolescence, less for men

• 1 in 10 children have some sort of learning disability

As you can see, you are not alone if your child has a mental illness. Here are some facts about the more common forms of mental illness in children and adolescents.


Depressive disorders occur less frequently in children than adults, but rise dramatically in adolescence where depression is more frequent than adults.

Parents should be aware of the core symptoms that may signal depression in children, as children may not be able or willing to express them. Such as:

• A marked drop in school performance

• Loss of interest in activities once enjoyed

• Sudden outburst of anger, aggression and/or crying

• Suicidal thoughts

• Excessive fear or anxiety

• Abuse of alcohol, drugs and/or self

• Constant physical complaints with no apparent cause

• Excessive concentration on studying or watching TV at home whilst avoiding contact with friends

Treatment of depression is essential, as childhood and adolescence is a time where people learn their social and academic skills.

Through the use of psychotherapy and medication, children and adolescents are able to express their feelings and develop coping strategies to deal with their illness, hence improving their self-esteem and future prospects.

Early diagnosis means a minimal disturbance of normal functioning. For more support and information, contact Lifeline on 131114, Kids Help Line on 1800 551 800 or see www.reachout.com.au.


Nearly all children develop fears of the dark, monsters, witches or other fantasy characters.

Normally these fears fade away with age, however sometimes they linger and interfere with a child’s normal functioning.

For children, this can be a traumatic time, professional intervention may be needed. Below is an outline of the more common childhood anxieties.

Simple Phobias

A simple phobia is an overwhelming fear of a specific object, for example an animal or a kitchen object. Nearly half of all children report having fears, and many more have phobias but don’t get treatment.

A simple phobia only becomes a problem when it interferes with the child’s daily life, for example, when a child is too afraid to go outside at all for fear of being attacked by a dog, whether there is a dog around or not.

When the child reaches this point, it is probably time to seek professional intervention. Treatment is usually through medication and behaviour therapy.

Behaviour therapy is where the child is exposed to the feared object in a carefully controlled environment, the purpose being to reduce and control the child’s fear.

Separation Anxiety Disorder

Children can develop an attachment to a caregiver so strong that they experience intense anxiety and panic upon separation.

This anxiety is so strong that it interferes with the child’s ability to function normally, and can develop into a flat refusal to go to school for fear of permanent separation. Some of the more common symptoms that can occur are:

• Constant thoughts and fears about safety of self and parent

• Refusing to go to school

• Frequent stomach aches and other physical complaints

• Extreme worries about sleeping away from home

• Overly clingy behaviour at home

• Panic or tantrums at times of separation from parents

Parents should be alert to the signs of severe anxiety so they can intervene early to prevent complications. Early treatment can prevent future difficulties, such as, loss of friendships, failure to reach social and academic potential, and feelings of low self-esteem.

Severe anxiety problems in children can be treated. Treatments may include a combination of the following: individual psychotherapy, family therapy, medications, behavioural treatments, and consultation with the school.

Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD)

Generalised anxiety disorder is marked by unrealistic and excessive worry, accompanied by constant and often unnecessary concern about anything or everything.

Less frequent in children, the irrational worry is accompanied by a feeling of constant apprehension.

Panic Disorder

Panic attacks occur when the body gives off the same distress signals that occur when a person is faced with a life-threatening or similar event - yet no such trigger is present.

This means that a person may be sleeping, relaxing or just going about their daily business when they suddenly feel some or all of the symptoms of a panic attack including: chest pain, palpitations, trembling legs.

The person may feel they are going crazy or that they are about to have a heart attack.


Agoraphobia is an anxiety disorder characterised by an uneasiness, fear or dread about leaving familiar surroundings.

This may include a reluctance to travel, particularly on public transport, or to be in crowded places. It is associated with severe physical symptoms of anxiety and panic attacks.

It is a condition related to anxiety, depression, panic and other phobias.

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is an Anxiety Disorder that is mainly characterised by intrusive thoughts (obsessions) and behaviours (compulsions).

Individuals with OCD are besieged by patterns of unwanted, repetitive thoughts and repetitious behaviours that are distressing and difficult to ignore or overcome completely.

Adolescents and parents of children who seem to be exhibiting signs of an anxiety disorder should contact a child and adolescent psychiatrist, or their local mental health centre (see ‘Community Health Centre’ in the local White Pages).

Telephone information and support lines can also provide valuable information and advice about anxiety and children, contact Lifeline on 131 114, Kids Helpline on 1800 551 800, www.reachout.com.au or Anxiety Disorders Alliance on 02 9570 3746.

CONDUCT DISORDER (oppositional defiant disorder)

Children with conduct disorder exhibit behaviour that shows a persistent disregard for the norms and rules of society and other people’s basic rights.

Conduct disorder, one of the most frequently seen mental disorders in adolescents, affects approximately 3% of adolescents under 17.

Oppositional Defiant Disorder indicates similar behaviour, but generally not across all environments (e.g.difficult at home but normal with friends).

Children who exhibit a number of the following symptoms over a short period of time should consider getting help.

• Stealing

• Constantly lying

• Deliberately lighting fires

• Truancy

• Deliberate cruelty to animals and/or humans

• Disregard for other people’s property and self

• Starting conflicts

• Forcing others into sexual acts

Appropriate treatment for conduct disorder is essential. Treatment is by behaviour therapy and psychotherapy, either individual or group sessions.

Conduct Disorder is distinct from ADHD and other personality disorders, however there is a high rate of co-morbidity. Medications are sometimes used. More information can be obtained from your local GP or community health centre.


Autism becomes apparent at around the age of 2 ½. It is marked by a dramatically impaired ability to communicate and interact with others. Children with autism also have a low level of activity and range of interests.

The disorder does not have a single cause; instead, it is likely that a number of biological and psychosocial influences are involved. Some of the symptoms are:

• Never learn to talk properly

• May repeatedly say a word or phrase heard in a conversation or TV

• Repetitive body movements

• Attachment to an unusual object (e.g. string)

• Extreme distress at a change in their environment

There are many different therapies that seek to improve the individual symptoms of autism. Early detection and intervention is essential to help maximize a child’s potential.

For more information, it is best to contact a Child and Adolescent psychiatrist through your local GP.


Children with learning disabilities usually have a normal range of intelligence.

They try hard at school and home, but never seem to master tasks. It is believed that learning disorders are caused by a difficulty within the nervous system, that being the receiving, processing and communication of information.

Some children with learning disorders are also hyperactive and have a short attention span. Some common symptoms are:

• Difficulty understanding and following instructions.

• Trouble remembering what someone just told him or her.

• Failing to master reading, spelling, writing, and/or math skills, and thus fails schoolwork.

• Difficulty distinguishing right from left; difficulty identifying words or a tendency to reverse letters, words, or numbers. (For example, confusing 25 with 52, "b" with "d," or "on" with "no").

• Lacks coordination in walking, sports, or small activities such as holding a pencil or tying a shoelace.

• Easily loses or misplaces homework, schoolbooks, or other items.

• Cannot understand the concept of time; is confused by "yesterday," "today," "tomorrow.”

A child and adolescent psychiatrist can help co-ordinate an evaluation, and work with school professionals and others to determine the existence and extent of any learning disorder.

They can make recommendations for special educational requirements, speech therapy and learning techniques. It is important to address this problem, as it can affect a child’s self-confidence, hence future potential.

Further help and referrals can be obtained through your local GP and the Australian Psychological Society on 1800 333 497.


Many children have sleep problems. Some examples are:

• Frequent awakening during the night

• Talking during sleep

• Difficulty falling asleep

• Waking up crying

• Feeling sleepy during the day

• Nightmares

• Bedwetting

• Sleepwalking

As most parents will know, these symptoms are fairly standard occurrences for children. Normally they are due to irregular sleeping habits, separation anxiety or emotional difficulties.

Whilst feeding and rocking a child to sleep is beneficial, it is not a long term solution, and parents should encourage their children to go to sleep on their own.

When the symptoms start affecting the child’s regular activities, or occur several times a night, it could be beneficial to see your local GP, or a child and adolescent psychiatrist.

Fortunately, most sleep problems will disappear as the child gets older.

Diet change strategies:

When You Crave A Good Feeling

Some moods trigger food cravings -- and vice versa. The challenge is to keep both in check.

Think of your body as an insanely complex, gooey car. Put in gas and oil (a balanced diet), and you're good to go. Put in nicotine, alcohol, caffeine, weird, manufactured fats, gummy, washed-out flour, and sugar, and it's like pouring sugar into the gas tank. You'll sputter, run on, stop and start, or stall.

Put Food In, See a Difference

Senior New York University clinical nutritionist Samantha Heller, MS, RD, would probably prefer an analogy to a chemistry set. "If you are chemically balanced," Heller contends, "your moods will be balanced."

A lot of factors can throw the body out of balance. "A lot of women are anemic," she says. "This leads to depression and fatigue. Older people are often deficient in the B vitamins. People who don't eat regularly often have big shifts in blood sugar." People also have chemical sensitivities to certain foods that can govern mood.

In a study of 200 people done in England for the mental health group known as Mind, subjects were told to cut down on mood "stressors" they consumed, while increasing the amount of mood "supporters." Stressors included sugar, caffeine, alcohol, and chocolate (more of that coming up). Supporters were water, vegetables, fruit, and oil-rich fish.

Eighty-eight percent of the people who tried this reported improved mental health. Specifically, 26% said they had fewer mood swings, 26% had fewer panic attacks and anxiety, and 24% said they experienced less depression.

How Moods Are Fed or Starved

One big set of chemicals that control mood are the neurotransmitters in the brain led by the pleasure "drug" serotonin. These substances determine whether you feel good and energetic or tired, irritable, and spacey. They run on sugar, preferably the form that comes from low glycemic carbohydrates (not doughnut sprinkles), according to Molly Kimball, RD, sports and lifestyle nutritionist at the Ochsner Clinic Foundation and Hospital in New Orleans.

The idea, she says, is to maintain a stable blood sugar level through the day, slowly feeding these substances into the brain. Low glycemic carbs include whole grain bread, beans, whole grain crackers, soy, apples, pears, peaches, and other fruits.

What Kimball calls "crappy carbs" -- commercial granola bars, animal crackers, graham crackers, potato chips, and of course, cakes and pies -- flood into the system too fast and cause your body to order up a big shot of insulin, which then tips the balance you've tried to maintain. "You can see it when you've had a white flour pancake and syrup for breakfast," Kimball says. "By mid-afternoon, you're ready for a nap." This sugar alert/insulin cycle can gradually become less efficient and lead to diabetes and other problems.

Comfort Foods Really Work

If you have let your neurotransmitters get off balance or if external forces have conspired to put you in a bad mood, don't fret, it happens. That's when your body will start to think "comfort food."

According to Joy Short, MS, RD, assistant professor and head of undergraduate nutrition and dietetics at St. Louis University, you should fulfill that craving -- but in moderation. "You might take time to think, 'Am I really hungry or just feel like eating because I am stressed,'" she says.

However, if you can't think of a healthier response, eat your comfort item and enjoy it! If you must eat a deep-fried Twinkie, eat one and lighten up on (but don't skip) the rest of the meals in the day, she says.

You could make comfort foods more nutritional, she says. Interestingly, both men and women choose ice cream as their preferred comfort food, but coming in second is chocolate for women and pizza for men. "If you want a cookie, make it oatmeal raisin or vanilla wafers. Buy low-fat ice cream. Make your hot chocolate with skim milk. And forget the chips, in favor of popcorn or pretzels," Short says. Or after Domino's arrives, throw some artichoke pieces, anchovies, or frozen veggies on top and heat.

What about that universal comfort food, chocolate? Much has been written about chocolate's rich complement of mood-altering chemicals, some of which trip the serotonin receptors and cause a "falling in love" feeling, according to millions of chocoholics.

Chocolate is also supposedly loaded with antioxidants that keep the brain and other organs from being bashed by rogue cells called free radicals. Kimball says chocolate can act almost as a cannabinoid -- the mood-altering chemical found in marijuana. But Heller and Short say the touchy-feely chemicals are not in sufficient strength to make a difference in the body.

Recommendations for Managing Moods

• Maintain a stable blood sugar, no big swings. This means frequent small meals and snacks, every four hours or so.
• Be sure to drink a lot of water and juice.
• Exercise 20 minutes a day for mood -- and an hour for fat-burning.
• Do not follow an extremely low-fat diet (quick weight loss is also bad for mood, Heller says). Fat is needed for anti-depression. Stick with polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats and fatty fish or flaxseeds, which are full of healthy omega-3 fats.
• Take in tryptophan, an amino acid that makes blood sugar accessible to the neurotransmitters. This means milk or turkey. Eat a carb alongside your tryptophan source for better absorption.
• Have breakfast.
• Spend time in the produce department when you shop (try to eat a lot of bright colors, which means fruits and veggies).
• Pass on food items that come wrapped in crackly cellophane.
• Limit coffee (even nutritionist Kimball drinks some).
• Don't eliminate any one food group, such as carbs.


Herbs and related supplements are one natural treatment alternative for mental health disorder patients. Some patients prefer to use natural treatment choices as stand alone treatment, whereas others use them in combination with medication and psychotherapy. Work with your health care practitioner to find out what is best for you.

The best place to get quality supplements is from a natural healthcare provider. There are dozens of supplements marketed on supermarket shelves today, but many of these do not receive standardization. It is important if you decide to use supplements that you get the best quality supplement possible.

Here is a listing of a few supplements that healthcare providers have used for many years to treat symptoms of bipolar and related disorders. Most herbs come from plants and can help relax or provide support with sleep disorders and depression in patients.

Black Cohosh – This may affect one’s hormones, which may be one cause for symptoms of some mental health disorders.

Damiana – Often used to help lessen depression, but may cause mania in people with bipolar disorder.

Ginseng – May help provide more energy to people who feel fatigue during depressive states.

Gotu Kola – May help address symptoms of anxiety.

St. John’s Wort – One of the most popular of herbal supplements supported with scientific research that may help lessen mild depression. Again, one should use with caution and can interact with other medications including antidepressants.

Vitamin & Nutrient Associations

If you suffer from mental health disorders, it is important you eat well to nourish your body. Deficiencies of vitamins and minerals can contribute to your symptoms. Deficiencies of vitamins and minerals in anyone can contribute to symptoms including anxiety, depression and poor health.

A good quality multivitamin is a good start, especially if you do not have a history of eating well. Even if you do eat well, not all people absorb the vitamins and nutrients from their foods completely, so a multivitamin may help correct any shortages.

Many therapists recommend patients with bipolar disorder take extra B vitamins because these vitamins may affect our moods. A deficiency in vitamin B of any type may result in symptoms of depression or anxiety.

B vitamins are also often recommended to people to help lessen fatigue. For most, B vitamins help energize the body. There are many forms of B vitamins, so your best bet is a complex tablet containing all the B vitamins. For your information, here is a breakdown of the B vitamins by category.

• B-1 – Also known as “Thiamin.” This may impact anxiety, irritability and improve blood circulation in the brain and body.

• B-6 – Also known as “Pyridoxine.” This B vitamin may help reduce irritability. Doctors sometimes recommend it to patients with premenstrual irritability and agitation. You can take too much however, so be sure you consult with your doctor.

• B-12 – This vitamin helps convert what you eat into fuel for your body. It is most helpful for reducing drowsiness.

• Folic Acid – Important for preserving the body’s systems and biochemical balance. Careful however, as this supplement may interact with some of the more commonly prescribed mood stabilizers including Depakene.

Other vitamins that may prove helpful may include vitamin E, which may combat the risk of seizures often associated with the use of traditional medication therapies.

Here are some other supplements and nutrients that may prove useful for combating the symptoms of mental health disorders.

SAMe (pronounced Sammy) – This supplement may affect levels of dopamine and serotonin in the brain, but carries with it a risk of mania.

Tyrosine – Often used in combination with B vitamins, this amino acid is a precursor to dopamine and norepinephrine, important neurotransmitters in the body. What this means is your body needs tyrosine to make norepinephrine and dopamine.

GABA – May help relieve some symptoms including anxiety, insomnia, racing thoughts and tension in patients with bipolar or related disorders.

Essential Fatty Acids – Essential fatty acids are important for our entire body to work properly. They nourish the brain and may help reduce symptoms of depression. You can get essential fatty acids by eating more fatty fishes and flax seed or by taking an Omega 3 supplement. Some healthcare providers recommend as much as 5,000 I.U. or more for patients with severe depression. Be sure you check in with your doctor. Most over-the-counter supplements contain only 1,000 I.U. per serving.

Lecithin – This substance may help stabilize mood swings. If you plan to use this supplement, you should do so while working with a natural health care provider.

Calcium – Calcium is a mineral our bodies need for proper neurotransmitter production. Look for a supplement with calcium and magnesium to heighten the effects. A lack in magnesium can often lead to insomnia and anxiety.

Zinc – This important and often ignored mineral is often lacking in many people’s diet. It can help combat colds and may help reduce some symptoms of depression or other mental disorders.

Remember, as with herbal supplementation you should embark on vitamin and nutritional therapy under a skilled practitioner’s guidance.

Even when we try to eat well, we're disadvantaged. The nutritional content of most food has been compromised over the years, not only by deficient soils and modern production, transportation, storage and processing methods, but also by the enormous amounts of chemical and artificial substances added to promote growth, storage life, taste and appearance.

It's for this reason that more and more medical authorities are advocating the use of vitamin and mineral supplements. However, finding them in the right combination can be both confusing and costly.

The nutrition products I am going to recommend you make use of knowledge gained from the botanical world's 6,000 year history. They incorporated health building nutritional herbs with the best modern technology to help our bodies cleanse and detoxify so that the cells - the tiniest living units - can be as fully nourished as possible.

This allows the cells to grow, repair and to perform their functions with the best possible efficiency so that we feel and look better and are more able to prevent and fight disease. Once the body begins to clear itself of toxins it can more efficiently absorb nutrition.

You may find benefit from our information on detoxification as well as a bit about detoxing because of change of diet

It may be due to difficulties with your digestive system that is causing your body to be starved of key nutrients, vitamins or minerals. In this case you may find useful answers by reviewing our article on Nutrition For Your Cells. There is also more information here about why is nutrition such an issue nowadays?

It may be that your metabolism has slowed due to pressures that have been placed on your system through life in general or through specific “challenges” you have faced in the last few months or last few years. Review this by looking at our article about balancing your Metabolic Rate.

Further reading through our articles on health issues will give you a body of information that will help you decide what options you have to deal with the underlying causes of your problem through giving your body the nutrition products that will assist you body to heal from the inside out.

Most mental health disorders are complex and often misunderstood, that affects millions of people every year. It is important that patients understand their disorder is one that they can live with, and even learn to enjoy life with.

There are many misconceptions surrounding mental health disorders. There are times when a patient’s symptoms may become very serious. In cases like this it is critical a person seek professional care and guidance. A mental health disorder can manifest in many different ways. It can for example, manifest as a mild disorder with mild mood swings, or a major mood disorder with swings that are very extreme.

There are many approaches to treating a mental disorder. A patient should always work with a competent doctor or other healthcare provider they can rely and trust on in times of need. Also important to one’s health is his or her ability to build a supportive wellness team.

Your wellness team can help you during the tough times, offering support and helping you make critical decisions when you may not be up to it. The most important step a patient can take, the one that will ultimately lead to their success and fulfillment, is to take a proactive role in their recovery and in their care. To do this, you must first embrace and accept the fact that you have a mental health disorder.

Once you do this, life gets a lot easier. You can then help manage your disorder by working actively with each member of your wellness team as well as with members of your family and your healthcare team to create an action plan that allows you to live a happy, healthy life. Many people live with mental health disorders. Your job is to learn to not only live with, but also learn to enjoy life with bipolar disorder or any serious ailment.

Congratulations on taking a step in the right direction, one that will lead to your long-term recovery and happiness.

We wish you well in your search for solutions to this problem and your movement towards better health in all areas.


Mental Health Problems
Various factors either contribute to or challenge our ability to look after our "whole person". These factors include our degree of self-discipline, how aware we are of our feelings and thoughts, how well we know ourselves.

Factors outside ourselves include the nature of our home and work environment, our financial situation, the current state of our relationships with important people in our lives - friends, partners, families and work colleagues.

The quality of our mental health varies depending on our experience and circumstances. Periods of emotional or financial stress can take their toll on mental health. Working your way, mindfully, through life's difficulties can help us to grow in our emotional life and self-esteem, so that we are even better prepared for future challenges.

If the tension gets too much for us to cope with, however, it can cause us to "break down" emotionally or mentally, that is, not be able to carry on our lives in health. At these times, we may need to ask for help or support while we adjust. Many people live with disability, including physical illness or mental illness, and cope in a healthy way. The challenge for all of us is to search out new ways to cope.
(To read the rest of this article click on the Title above here.)

For more information on any of these disorders, contact Anxiety Disorders Alliance on 02 9570 4519, your local GP or the Mental Health Information Service (02 9816 5688 or 1800 674 200 (outside Sydney Metro) for fact sheets and services in your area.

To get help for your child, visit your GP or a Child & Adolescent Psychiatrist.


American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry www.aacap.org
American Psychiatric Association www.psych.org
The Mental Health of Young People in Australia National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing October 2000
Barlow, D.H. and Durand, V.M. (1999) Abnormal Psychology 2nd Edition Brooks/Cole Publishing USA

The information provided is to be used for educational purposes only. It should not be used as a substitute for seeking professional care in the diagnosis and treatment of mental health disorders. Information may be reproduced with an acknowledgement to the Mental Health Association NSW. This, and other fact sheets are available for download from www.mentalhealth.asn.au. This fact sheet was last updated in Spring, 2001.

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