Child mental health — NJ experts on the dangers and signs
An annual average of more than 930,000 New Jersey adults are living with a mental illness.
How much lower could that number be today if signs of these individuals' developing disorders were caught and addressed at an early age?
"Many adults that are dealing with mental health issues right now probably have been dealing with these issues since childhood," said Betty Jean, senior coordinator of call center services for the Mental Health Association in New Jersey. "It can begin at any stage of life and oftentimes it happens in childhood."
This article begins a week-long series that examines children's mental health in New Jersey, and the care devoted to limiting the impact of youth mental illness.
National figures suggest that at minimum more than 135,000 children in New Jersey are currently dealing with a mental health issue. That's just considering those who've been actually been diagnosed with a problem such as anxiety or depression. Other serious mental illnesses such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder can be added to the total as well.
"Kids aren't getting the attention that they need. They're falling through the cracks," Jean said.
Still sigmatized in 2019, perhaps not as harshly as in decades past, the seriousness of mental health challenges is minimized by both youth and their parents, experts claim.
"Some parents are reluctant to seek help for their children when they first suspect a problem, due to a fear of having their children labeled with a mental health-related diagnosis. This can add to the child's depression or anxiety," said Kelly Moore, program manager for the Children's Center for Resilience and Trauma Recovery at Rutgers University Behavioral Health Care.
Moore said people should treat their child's mental health as they would their physical health. If mental health conditions are viewed as other chronic conditions like asthma and diabetes, she said, more people in need may actually secure help.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 7.1% of children aged 3 to 17 have diagnosed anxiety, and 3.2% diagnosed depression, with a number of these cases overlapping. This puts the count in New Jersey at a little more than 137,000 youth in the Garden State dealing with a diagnosed mental health issue. The actual tally of children needing mental health assistance is likely much higher.
Jean said the call center "applauds" parents who pick up the phone and attempt to start the process of getting answers and determining whether something is truly wrong — a chemical imbalance, that is — with their child who's been "off."
"Children speak through their actions, they speak through their play, they speak through what they don't say," Jean said.
Any teen or preteen can have a bad day. Red flags include persistent issues such as frequent complaints of physical ailments like stomach pains or headaches. Losing interest in activities they typically enjoy, shying away from interaction, and a loss of appetite may also serve as a heads-up to people in the household.
Parents and guardians aren't the only trusted adults in children's lives, however. This series will examine the role of schools and primary doctors, for example, in children's mental health care.
"Children who are coping with anxiety seek constant reassurance," Moore added. "They might ask a lot of questions repeatedly after receiving answers, always need to know the day's schedule and details, or need to be constantly told that everything is okay."
Bullying, which can look quite different today in the world of social media, along with pressures at home, trauma and genetics are all potential root causes of an individual's mental-heath woes.
New Jersey figures point to a rise in suicide attempts by pre-teens. On day 2 of this series, experts will address the ultimate consequence of youth mental illness.
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