However, research shows that untreated mental illness in childhood (even very young children) can lead to many difficulties in adolescence and adulthood, including comorbid (co-occurring) mental disorders, problems in school, involvement in the criminal justice system, and suicide.
We know the risk factors that disrupt normal development, including trauma, poverty, homelessness, parental mental disorders, and child abuse.
And we are beginning to understand what interventions work for children, and that early intervention is effective, both short-term and long-term, at treating mental disorders.
So why are many children and adolescents left untreated?
The answer to that question is complex.
First, in order to receive mental health services, parents, teachers, and others who work with children must know the signs. And even if a child does not meet full criteria for a disorder, the symptoms they are experiencing may still be distressing for them and others. Parents and those who work with children and adolescents should become informed about the signs of various behavior and mental issues so that they can be detected and treated.
Second, one must have access to mental health services. There are many barriers to receiving treatment, including lack of available services, inability to afford services, lack of transportation, and the stigma that is attached to receiving mental health care. Lack of access to services is a substantial problem, and large-scale reform and improvements to our mental health system are needed.
Treating issues early is effective, and many modes of intervention have been proven to be successful.
This is an important issue not only in mental health but in society as a whole. If issues are addressed and ameliorated earlier, health care and other costs plummet. If more of our children and teens become mentally healthy adults, this has wide-ranging positive effects for society. When we are mentally healthy, we are more productive at work, have healthier families, and make more contributions in our communities.
Christie Hyland is a first-year master’s student in the counseling program at Marquette University studying clinical mental health counseling with a specialization in child and adolescent counseling. She is completing her practicum at the Behavior Clinic, which specializes in treating young children with behavior issues.