Advice from an Expert: Children and Mental Health

Advice from an Expert: Children and Mental Health

Over the past year, we have all struggled with how COVID has impacted our lives. Some of us soldiered on making the best of what we had, and some felt the devastating impacts of this global pandemic more than most. 

The CDC conducted a survey that showed 40.9% of individuals surveyed stated they experienced adverse mental or behavioral health conditions. These ailments are not exclusive to adults.  Our children have also been victims of the impacts that COVID has had on their lives. 

Amanda J Williams PhD NCSP

To gain more insight on the topic, I spoke with a local psychologist whose training and practice to date has been with children and teens. Meet Amanda J. Williams, Ph.D., NCSP 

Dr. Williams currently resides in Loudoun County and earned her Ph.D. in School Psychology from Texas A&M University. At the beginning of our interview, we asked her why she chose the mental health profession. 

“I have always been interested in the treatment of mental health conditions since I was young. When I went to college, I took a Psych 101 course and fell in love with the field. The idea of understanding individual life experiences and ways to enact change was fascinating to me. In general, I am very interested in growth, and I saw psychology as a great opportunity to learn how to be useful for other people growing and changing. While working on my BA, I joined a clinical psychology lab studying ways to prevent teen suicide. It was a great experience working with teens to understand and ultimately change their patterns of behavior. I enjoyed being helpful to others as they found happiness in their life after challenging experiences.” 

She has dedicated her life since graduating to children and their families. 

“Yes. My training and practice to date have been with children and teens (with some young adult clients- traditional college-age). I also work with families sometimes concerning the needs of their children.  Children function as a part of their larger environment, just like with adults, and sometimes the environment needs to change for them to be successful in their growth.”

The education and treatment of mental health care in our country have been lacking, to say the least. When asked what the potential impacts of untreated mental illness have on a child’s development Dr. Williams claims,

“Untreated mental illness can have sweeping effects across a child’s entire lifespan. Depending on the specific concerns, it will impact a child’s emotional development, ability to sustain satisfactory relationships, ability to achieve in school (often kids with untreated mental illness are the ones acting out and being suspended/expelled), and ultimately limits their ability to be productive members of society. Most kids will learn how to cope in some way (be it adaptive or maladaptive). There is a high potential for what becomes a cycle of abusive relationships, continued failure to perform in school and later jobs, and an increased risk for drug/alcohol addiction as a method of maladaptive coping.  As a note, the untreated mental illness need not be the child’s for things like this to come up.  What happens for some is their primary caregiver might have untreated MI or themselves have learned maladaptive coping skills that they are inadvertently passing on to their kids. Generational cycles are a very real phenomenon that is difficult, but not impossible to break, once one person decides, or is able to, seek appropriate treatment and adaptive skill attainment.”

According to the American Psychological Association, we are facing a national mental health crisis that could yield serious consequences. As parents, guardians, teachers, and other caregivers, we must be attentive and know what signs to look for in our youth to ensure they receive the care and treatment they may need. Research published by the Journal of Abnormal Psychology recorded a spike of 52% in symptoms consistent with major depression from 2005-2017. 

Not sure what to look for? See our list of common symptoms to keep an eye out for.

  • Increased Anxiety, sadness, fear, and worry
  • Changes in eating/sleeping habits
  • Changes in activity level
  • Substance abuse
  • Participation in risky behaviors 

What should you do if you are observing any of these signs in the children you care for? First and foremost, if you are concerned for your child’s safety you should not hesitate to take them to the ER or call 911. If there is no immediate threat Dr. Williams recommends, 

“[You]…could ask the kid how they are doing and practice reflective listening to really hear what they say. If the parent is not sure they could do that effectively, it’s always a good idea to talk to a professional. You could start with their teacher or a mental health professional at school (counselor, psychologist, social worker).

If [you] aren’t sure that would be effective, or that didn’t get a satisfactory response, talking to a primary care doctor or going right to a mental health counselor, therapist, psychologist, etc., is a good idea. You can contact your insurance company to find someone who takes your insurance. Or you could ask around to family/friends what they might suggest. School mental health providers often can help with referrals as well.”

No matter whether or not you feel your child is suffering from a possible mental health illness, it is important to educate them. Education on mental health is just as important as physical education. 

Dr. Williams states, “I…see it similarly to physical health care. We teach kids to exercise because it is good for your body. I think explicitly teaching kids how to care for their mental health is (and should be) just as important. For example, a lot of schools are adopting lessons focused on social-emotional learning (SEL) as a way to explicitly teach kids how to regulate their emotions, build/maintain friendships, etc. Being explicit with this education will set up society as a whole to be more empathic and healthy in the long run; resulting in a better society.”

During these unprecedented times, we urge everyone to stay vigilant and act now to give our youth the tools they need to be the best versions of themselves. 

If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (en español: 1-888-628-9454; deaf and hard of hearing: dial 711, then 1-800-273-8255) or the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741.

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