Wednesday, January 27th 2016 is Bell Let's Talk About Mental Health Day. This has always been a topic close to my heart, even before autism came into my life via my son. I have seen family members and close friends struggle with mental health issues, and always suspected that I struggled with anxiety and was prone to depressive episodes. I hid from it though, until I experienced two burnouts in a five year period, one in my late thirties, one in my early forties. I realized I needed new tools in my toolbox to cope with the way I handled stress, so I could live a happier and fuller life, and so that I can help my son, who struggles with anxiety as part of his autism diagnosis.
There is still so much misinformation on mental illness in society, especially in the workforce and in schools, where young people and older adults are stigmatized as being unproductive, lazy or exaggerating their behavior, when really they are dealing with very real mental health issues, ADD, ADHD, Autism, Bipolar or other depressive disorders. These individuals need our help, not our judgment. People cannot "snap out of it" as I heard when I was feeling depressed. I believe there are many signs of mental health issues we can spot in our children as their parents, in order to help them improve, as other mental health issues are often co-morbid conditions with autism. Remember, today's children who struggle but succeed will one day help educate the rest of the world on what mental health issues are and are not.
There are many signs I have seen and you will inevitably spot in others who are struggling with very real mental health issues. If you see any of these red flags, it's important to get your children help so they can learn how to live with what they have in the best way possible:
5 Signs Your Special Needs Child Has Mental Health Issues:
1) They complain of stomach pain or headaches frequently: All children feel nervous or stressed at times and have physical pains in their stomachs, head or other parts of their body. If it is happening on a regular basis though, that's a red flag to get the child to his/her pediatrician, rule out physical issues, and get a referral to a child psychologist.
2) They are having significant social struggles making friends and/or don't have any close friends: Some kids are social butterflies and very extroverted, some have only a few friends and are more introverted, but that is normal for them. However, children who routinely have social struggles, difficulty making or keeping friends, need to be evaluated to rule out anything else going on.
3) Teachers are telling you that they are not focusing well in class, and/or they are disruptive and have trouble getting along with people: Kids who regularly zone out in class, are disruptive in class, and are aggressive, confrontational, or disinterested in all areas of their life, need to have parents involved to see what else is going on.
4) They want to be alone and shy away from family members and friends: Again, we all want to be alone at times and need our space, but if a child is compulsively seeking to be alone, beware of something else going on.
5) Their eating habits change: too little, too much, and their sleep patterns change too, eating more or less: A child who was once eating a lot and now eats so much less, was not a sleeper and is now compulsively seeking sleep, means that something bigger is going on. Like with everything else, as a parent you need to evaluate how often these strange things are happening to determine if this is a worrisome trend or something temporary.
As a parent, you know your child better than anyone. Trust your instincts. If something does not seem right, it probably is not. On the other hand, it never hurts to double check things that are problematic if you are not sure. If they turn out to be nothing, you have ruled things out. Mental health issues do not go away. They need to be managed, tools need to be implemented, and awareness needs to be spread to the rest of the world who often mistakenly downplay this very real issue. Only by supporting and believing in our children, can we help bring them up in a world that will see their strengths and not their weaknesses.
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