When children are diagnosed with a mental health disorder, treatment often involves more than just the young patient.
Treatment for a mental health issue doesn't occur in a vacuum. For this reason, a therapy plan for child who is dealing with a mental health problem may include all aspects of his or her daily life. Because they see the child daily or almost daily, family members and teachers have the opportunity to make a strong impact on the youth's treatment. That means family members, teachers and other caregivers become important members of the child's therapy team, which also includes the young patient's pediatrician or other health care provider along with any psychologists, psychiatrists and other counselors and therapists.
To assist all members of a child's treatment team, the National Institute of Mental Health has assembled some important information they can use to best serve a child with mental illness.
What can my family do to help my child?
Before a child is diagnosed with a mental health disorder, frustration, blame, and anger may have built up in her or his family. Parents and children may need help to undo these unhealthy interaction patterns. Psychologists and other mental health professionals can counsel the child and all his or her family members to help everyone develop new skills, attitudes and ways of relating to one another.
Parents can also help by taking parenting skills training. The skills learned can help parents learn how to handle difficult situations with their children and their behaviors. Many training programs encourage a parent to share a pleasant or relaxing activity with the child, to notice and point out what the child does well and to praise the child's strengths and abilities. Parents may also learn to arrange family situations in more positive ways. These classes often include training in stress management techniques so parents can learn how to better deal with their own frustration so they can then respond calmly to their children's behavior.
Sometimes, the whole family may need counseling. Therapists can help family members find better ways to handle disruptive behaviors and encourage behavior changes.
Finally, support groups are available to help parents and families connect with others who have similar problems and concerns. Some groups often meet regularly in person or gather online at a particular Web site or communicate via e-mail to share frustrations and successes, to exchange information about recommended specialists and strategies and to talk with experts.
What special challenges can school present?
Each school year brings a new teacher and new schoolwork. This change can be difficult for some children with mental health issues. Therefore, take the time to inform your child's teacher(s) about your child's mental illness and treatment plan when he or she starts school or moves into a new class. This information can help the teacher(s) better support the child and even offer additional assistance to help your child adjust to the change.
How do I work with my child's school?
If your child attends public school and has problems because of his or her mental health disorder or if a teacher raises concerns about your child's behavior in class, you can take steps to get your child help. Ask the school to evaluate your child to determine if your child qualifies for special education services. By law, public schools must provide certain services to children who qualify, and these service can help you and your child's school find a solution so your youngster can continue learning. Be aware, though, that not all children diagnosed with a mental illness qualify for these services.
Speaking with your child's teacher, school counselor or school nurse can also open doors. These professionals can help you get an evaluation started. Also, each state has a Parent Training and Information Center and a Protection and Advocacy Agency that can help you request the evaluation. The evaluation must be conducted by a team of professionals who assess all areas related to the suspected disability using a variety of tools and measures.
If the evaluation determines your child is eligible, several options may be available for her or him, depending on the specific needs. If special education services are needed and if your child is eligible under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the school district must develop an individualized education program specifically for your child within 30 days.
If your child is not eligible for special education services, he or she is still entitled to free appropriate public education, which must be available to all public school children with disabilities under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. Your child is entitled to this service regardless of the nature or severity of his or her condition.
The U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights enforces Section 504 in programs and activities that receive federal education funds. More information about programs for children with disabilities is available on the U.S. Department of Education's Web site.
Where else can I go for help?
If you are unsure where to go for help for your child, yourself or your whole family, ask your health care provider. She or he may refer you to a mental health professional trained to meet the needs of a person diagnosed with a mental health issue or a person caring for a mental health patient.
In addition to your family health care provider, many of the following professionals and programs could provide some assistance:
- Mental health specialists, such as psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers or mental health counselors
- Community mental health centers
- Hospital psychiatry departments and outpatient clinics
- Mental health programs at local universities or medical schools
- State hospital outpatient clinics
- City, county or state family services agencies or social agencies
- Mental health support groups
- Employee assistance programs
- Local medical or psychiatric societies
You can also check the phone book or search online for "mental health," "social services," "hotlines" or for your child's specific mental health issue to find contact information for mental health services providers in your area. An emergency room doctor can also provide temporary help and can tell you where and how to get further help.
For non-emergency situations, you can find more information on mental health on the National Institute of Mental Health's Web site.
Guidance, patience and understanding from parents, caregivers and teachers are vital for children with mental illness. This support can help them achieve their full potential and succeed, not just in school but in life overall.