Mental illness and your child's health

Mental Illness: Putting the Pieces Together
UT Southwestern Medical Center psychiatrists Drs. Adam Brenner and Preston Wiles answer some frequently asked questions about mental illness.

Did you know that more than 20 percent of children experience a mental disorder? With recent tragedies haunting America’s communities, mental illness has come to the forefront of public awareness. It is time to address the mental health of America’s children and how we can help.

According to research by the National Institute of Mental Health, one in every four to five U.S. youth is affected by some type of mental disorder to the extent that  the child has difficulty functioning.

Adam Brenner, M.D., Associate Professor of Psychiatry at UT Southwestern Medical Center, answers parents’ most pressing questions regarding serious mental illness, which include illnesses such as depression, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia.

“It is often difficult for young people who are suffering from mental illness to be aware of changes in their thinking, feelings or behavior,” Dr. Brenner said. “It may be a family member, friend or teacher who first notices the signs of the illness.

Mental illness commonly begins in early life notes Dr. Brenner.

What are some early warning signs of mental illness?

  • Loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities (spending less time with friends, quitting sports or other extracurricular activities)
  • Decline in functioning (like failing at school or no longer keeping up with regular chores at home)
  • Suspiciousness or strong nervous feelings (spending excessive time alone in their room, or acting as though they are “being watched”)
  • Changes in sleep, appetite or personal hygiene (staying up all night, requiring frequent reminders to bathe or change clothing)
  • Problems with concentration, memory or speech (talking in a disorganized or unusual way, talking too fast, or jumping between unrelated topics).

What should I do if I notice these signs in my child or teen?

According to Dr. Brenner, a gentle talk with the child or adolescent about your concerns may be a good first step. They may already have noticed something but have been too ashamed or frightened to discuss it. Consulting your primary care doctor or school counselor may also be beneficial when deciding how you can best help your child.   

Most importantly, if there is any concern that a person is a danger to themselves or others, either by voicing ideas of suicide or talking about shooting or harming others, call 911 or take the person to the nearest emergency room for assistance.

What resources does UT Southwestern offer the community?

UT Southwestern is home to one of the premier centers in the world for the study, diagnosis, and treatment of mental health and addictive disorders. In addition, UT Southwestern recently established an Autism Center for children, adolescents, and adults, as well as a Psychosis Clinic within the Department of Psychiatry.

Have questions? Tweet them to #erasingthestimga before February 5 for the opportunity to have your questions answered at the Dallas Morning News mental health symposium.

Luke ‘Ollie’ Mong, M.D., third-year resident, contributed to this article.