'Your child needs a hand to hold as they go through life' - 6 ways to identify a mental illness in children

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Mental illnesses are the least spoken-about disorders in children, especially in Black communities. A child will be labelled as ‘naughty’ or ‘stubborn’ for being withdrawn as a result of a mental trauma they may be suffering.

Parents usually find it difficult to differentiate between their child’s normal behaviour and mental issues because of the lack of vocabulary for children to express just how they feel. Family discussions about mental illness are usually swept under the carpet as a result of the stigma attached to it.

In 2018, studies conducted by the Mental Health and Poverty Project researchers found that 16.5 percent of South Africans suffer from common mental disorders like depression and anxiety and that 17 percent of children and adolescents suffer from mental disorders.

1. Understand mental health

Anyone can be affected by mental illness, which is why clinical psychologist from Rosebank Clinic Centre, Hlengiwe Zwane, says we all need to understand our mental state so that we are able to tell if it’s healthy or not.

“When we talk about mental illness it’s when something has gone ill, meaning that something has gone wrong but could be corrected through therapy, medication or behavioural changes,” Zwane says.

2. Normalise the phenomenon

Our views on mental illnesses are mostly influenced by the society we grow up in and the meaning that goes with it.

“We need to acknowledge that mental illness has always been associated with witchcraft in Black communities and that has always been the issue,” says educational psychologist, Maurious Mthimkhulu, on why society still gets uneasy about the idea.

Zwane further explains the importance of normalising the fact that there’s nothing wrong with someone having something imbalanced or behavioural changes that are based on genetics, social constructions or difficulties they are experiencing at that time.

3. Know how mental illness comes about

Zwane and Mthimkhulu both emphasise that mental illnesses are very common and everyone should be aware of their mental wellness. To understand how they come about, Zwane looks at it from the biological, psychological and social factors that may trigger the illness.

Biological Factors: The disorder is passed down from generation to generation on either side of the child’s parents. This means that the disorder runs in the family.

Psychological Factors: They are based on psychological encounters that the child comes across such as bullying at school, domestic violence at home or parents getting a divorce.

Social Factors: It is based on the social status that they are faced with, especially economic status and poverty.

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Mthimkhulu also added that some life incidents that the child witnesses, such as violence, could be traumatic.

“Parents should avoid fighting in front of children, leaving a child with a stranger, regularly changing nannies, where the child could be in danger of abuse. Leaving a child alone at night and not coming back can make the child feel neglected,” Zwane says.

She further advises parents not to neglect responsibilities within their control.

4. Early detection

Parents should know their children’s behaviour so that they can spot changes when they happen. Zwane says that there’s a chance of healing for most mental illnesses if detected sooner.

“There are some that can be managed because they are genetic. A lot of them can be corrected because the brain of the child is not fully developed. The vital part of the brain that is responsible for decision making, assessment of situations, judgement and personality development is not fully developed, hence we don’t diagnose personality disorders before the child has reached 18,” Zwane adds.

Mthimkhulu further assures parents that they are providing healing that is better for the child.

5. Know the importance of earlier detection

Mental illness could have a cognitive impact on the child in the future if not detected or treated earlier, both psychologists highlight.

“If not treated earlier, they could get what we call persistent depressive disorder, which is depression that has gone untreated for many years and now converted into maladaptive copying mechanism for the child. They could be struggling to cope and have a lot of suicidal attempts at a later stage,” Zwane says.

She further adds that they can have personality disorders as they grow up, which is something that could have been corrected at a childhood level.

Mthimkhulu says that the rise of incidents among high school learners such as the Mondeor High School learner who was murdered on his way to school, and the teenagers who were involved in the murder of Thorisho Themane, could be an indication of mental health cases that went untreated and escalated in future.

“That could be the result of psychological issues where the child never learnt how to express anger and end up killing someone. That could mean something went wrong in their earlier life,” he said.

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6. Know your role as a parents

The role of parents is also crucial in the wellbeing of a child. Not only do they need to take care of the child physically, but also mentally. Zwane encourages parents to be supportive, present and consistent at all times.

“Your child needs a hand to hold as they go through this stage of life that could be confusing for them as they don’t understand what is happening. Be there for your child at all times to easily pick up things that are not normal for your child. Home routines like bath times, bedtimes, spending time with your child and reading stories should be consistent,” Zwane encourages.

She also recognises that it could be difficult to draw the line between a child’s normal behaviour and mental disorder.

“Parents need to be observant and know what ‘normal’ looks like to their child. When your child does something out of baseline-normal level of how your child behaves, you could be able to pick it up and seek help. When your child is quiet or spending a lot of time alone and not wanting to socialise with other children, then you’ll start asking yourself what is happening,” she says.

Zwane explains the importance of parents allowing their children to speak up when they have problems.

“Play with your child and allow them to share things that happen at school and their everyday lives so that it becomes easier for them to even share their bad experiences,” Zwane suggests.

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