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A high profile topic at the Anxiety Disorders Association of America annual conference earlier this year was anxiety disorders in children.
Over a hundred scientists from around the world participated in a satellite discussion on pediatric anxiety from the conference which was held in Seattle, Washington. Children with anxiety disorders are known to be at greater risk for depression and other anxiety problems when they reach adulthood. While, for most, the condition is not severe enough to cripple their adult lives, there is an imperative need for researchers to know which children are more likely to develop problems later in life so that treatment options can be made available before their conditions deteriorate and depression and additional anxiety disorders develop. The conference’s Sunday public program included sessions to assist parents and children in coping with anxiety disorders.
Prior to that, a Harvard Mental Health Letter was devoted to the topic and emphasized the fact that panic disorders, phobias and other childhood anxiety conditions should be treated during childhood to prevent their resulting in dysfunctional adulthood, substance abuse, suicide, violence, domestic catastrophe and crime. Many parents may not realise that their child is experiencing symptoms of anxiety disorders because children’s minds and emotions change making it difficult to distinguish between normal, age-appropriate fears, e.g. a toddler’s fear of strangers, and real anxiety disorders. There are a variety of treatment options for children, who do not grow out of such fears, including play therapy and cognitive behavioural treatment which is the best-known treatment for anxiety disorders in children and adolescents.
Half of all lifetime mental health disorders have begun by age fourteen.
Then, a few weeks ago, various papers based on studies of the information derived from the landmark U.S. National Comorbidity Survey Replication were published. The shocking news that the study shows half of all lifetime cases of mental illness to have begun before the age of fourteen quickly made headlines around the world.
According to the research, long delays between the onset of a mental disorder and treatment occur for nearly all mental health disorders. On average – that is for all disorders – this delay is a little less than ten years but for social phobia and separation anxiety disorders it is not unusual for it to be more than twenty years. This is due, on the one hand, to the relatively early age of onset of these disorders and, on the other, to the fear of therapy that involves social interactions - e.g. simply the act of going to the doctor.
Untreated early-onset mental disorders lead to school failure, teen pregnancy...
Untreated, mental health disorders generally lead to worsening and greater severity of the condition which then becomes resistant to treatment. Early-onset mental disorders that are not treated lead to school failure, teenage pregnancy, chronic unemployment, instability in relationships and violence. Treating cases early prevents both the illness from becoming more severe and the development of co-occurring mental health disorders. However, the study found that disorders beginning in childhood, despite often being more serious than those starting in adulthood, were actually associated with the longest delays in seeking treatment. This is maybe because children need help from parents or other adults to seek treatment and, unless they are severe, symptoms are often not recognized by these adults. Hopefully, the high profile that the survey has received, will result in more importance being placed on mental health interventions aimed at preventing the worsening of primary disorders and development of additional disorders. Along with early treatment, there is an even greater need for public education on mental health disorders and for public information programs to de-stigmatize mental illness. If, as the study claims, nearly half of all Americans will experience a mental health disorder at some point during their lifetime, this should surely not be so difficult.
Social phobia creates the panic which prevents some children from even entering the classroom.
While it is a relief to know that most school personnel now recognize that it is not shyness or wilfulness but social phobia that creates the panic which prevents some children from even entering the classroom or selective mutism that stops others from speaking, empathy is still often hard to come by both for the children who are still often perceived as being manipulating and for the parents who continue to be perceived as having caused the problem in some way.
Anxiety disorders in childhood have proven to be indicative of the development of the eating disorders which young women in their teens and twenties often experience. Researchers, in fact, at the University of Pittsburgh found that of the two thirds of people with eating disorders who have, or have had, clinical anxiety, 42 percent - developed the anxiety disorder when they were children, long before they ever had eating disorders. Children with obsessive compulsive disorder – a condition most often occurring in the twenties with only 2 to 3 percent of cases actually beginning in childhood – are especially prone to developing eating disorders. Despite all this information, there are parents, journalists and politicians busy fighting against the controversial mental health screening for high school students. Can’t they see that, whether or not the program being advocated is a tool of the pharmaceutical companies, the screening is the important aspect. Nobody is forcing parents to feed their kids medication - they can surely educate themselves on the many non-pharmaceutical, evidence-based treatment options available.
Copyright Jean Jardine Miller.