Children with mental illness can be ‘invisible’

August 24, 2010

It’s surprising how many children are affected by a disease that makes them appear “invisible” because we don’t hear about or see them.

But in fact, 14 million – or 1-in-5 – children and adolescents have a mental health disorder, as reported by the Office of the Surgeon General.

“Mental illness is a very sensitive subject, even among parents,” says Ann Millard, Ph.D., associate professor at the Texas A&M Health Science Center School of Rural Public Health McAllen campus. “Some tend to deny that their child has a mental illness and will try to justify it by such comments as ‘It’s just a phase…He’ll grow out of it.’ If they are Hispanic, they may say ‘está chiflado’ or ‘está embrujado,’ meaning he or she is spoiled or possessed.”

Mental illness comes from biological factors, environmental factors or a combination of both. These factors include chemical imbalances in the brain, genetics, damage due to a brain injury, exposure to violence, stress caused by living in extreme poverty, and the loss of someone important in their lives through death or divorce, Dr. Millard says.

In 2002, it was estimated 419,070 children and adolescents in Texas suffered a serious mental illness, and the majority never received services or treatment for their disorder.

“Children and adolescents who go without treatment can have further issues such as performing poorly in or dropping out of school, using alcohol or drugs, getting in trouble with the law, health problems, violence, inability to live on their own, and even suicide,” Dr. Millard says. “Through education, the stigma associated with mental illness can be diminished. This will make people more receptive to the illness, and these ‘invisible’ children can get the treatment they need so they can succeed in life.”

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