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Can children experience mental health problems?

MRS Ishola is a proud nursing mother of a four-months-old baby girl, who works in a telecoms company as an IT specialist. She had the best evaluation scores at the periodic IT expertise examination of her Firm and the top three have been selected for all expenses paid trip to Silicon Valley for three months intensive training. She discussed with her husband about turning down the offer because of their baby, but he encouraged her to accept the offer. Her mother also volunteers to take care of the baby in her absence. After her departure, the baby cries inconsolably every day, refuses meals and begins to lose weight. The baby also becomes very sickly with frequent episodes of diarrhea and malaria. After two weeks, Grandma is completely exhausted and does not know what else to do for the baby.

What is obvious here, is that the baby is unhappy and missing her mummy. We now know that even infants can be miserable when either their needs are not met, or they are deprived of emotional support and comfort. Similarly, young children – including those as young as four or five years old, can be quite sensitive and aware of what is going on around them. So, for example, if the parents are fighting all the time and there is tension in the home, the child may become very uneasy and unsure of how to react. Such children may find it difficult to verbalise what they are going through – as they are not even mature enough to think about it properly. However, their emotional safety and feelings may be negatively affected.

What are the possible causes of mental health problems in children? But before we go even further, we should remember that everything we do as human beings: our thinking, emotions, behaviour, our intelligence – all these are functions that are performed by our ‘headquarters’, our brain. Mental or emotional problems affecting children and young persons can occur as a result of factors affecting their brain. These factors may be: (i)Biological problems such as injury to the brain during pregnancy or when the labour is delayed for a very long time, or the child suffers from infections which affected the brain e.t.c. (ii).Psychosocial problems, such as when the child is experiencing physical, emotional, or sexual abuse; when the parents’ divorce or one of them dies e.t.c. Living in deprived circumstances, exposure to violence, and experience of bullying amongst others, may all affect the normal development of the young brain.

How do children show that they have mental or emotional problems? These depends on the nature of mental health problems that the child is experiencing. The child may not grow or achieve milestones like the other children of the same age, for example, may not walk, or talk at the expected time. He may also not be as intelligent as expected, when compared to other children of the same age. The child may have difficulties with language and communication skills, and may also suffer from epilepsy. Socially awkward or inappropriate behaviours may also be present.  All of these symptoms are more than likely when there has been an injury to the growing brain.  Other common presentations, especially when the child is reacting to a pycho-social risk factor, may include change in mood, becoming withdrawn or irritable, becoming quarrelsome in school, bedwetting – for a child who had earlier stopped bedwetting e.t.c. Younger children may become clingy, crying excessively, or refusing to go to school. The manner of presentation also depends on the age of the child.

How common are mental health problems in children? These problems are very common in children, with Nigerian studies showing that about 1 in every 5 Nigerian child may be suffering from a mental health problem. The commonest conditions are anxiety, depression and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Other important types of mental health problems in children include Autism, Learning Disability and epilepsy. Furthermore, nearly half (50 per cent) of all adult mental disorders would have started by the age of 14 years. And even more importantly, Nigeria’s population is teeming with young people and we need to watch out for their mental and emotional wellbeing.

What should we do if we suspect that our child may be having some problems? We should ensure that the child is seen and evaluated by a qualified mental health professional, without any delay. This is very important because early detection and intervention for these problems, can significantly improve the ultimate outcome.

In conclusion, children and adolescents can,and do suffer from mental and emotional health problems. Early detection and intervention are crucial in order to improve and build upon the child’s strengths.