Children and Youth

Mental Illness in Children and Youth

Kids and teens are constantly changing. They grow up quickly and before you know it, your giggly, energetic toddler is a teenager who sleeps until noon. As we grow, it’s normal to change as we learn new things and our bodies transform into our adult selves. But with all these changes going on, how can we tell which changes are normal? At what point should we start worrying that our child’s tantrums or teenager’s mood swings are more than just “growing pains?” It can be hard to tell. The truth is, for many kids, these sudden changes aren’t just a part of growing up—they’re symptoms of a mental illness.

Mental illnesses are surprisingly common in children and youth. Many mental illnesses— between 50 percent and about 70 percent – show up before the age of 18, so they can have a huge impact on a child’s development. Mental illnesses can affect how well kids do in school and how they form relationships with other kids and adults. Mental illnesses, if not treated early, can be disruptive enough to a kid’s normal development that it can affect them for the rest of their lives.

Below are some common mental illnesses that affect children and teens:

  • Anxiety disorders are the most common illness to affect children and youth. About six percent of kids experience an anxiety disorder at some point. Anxiety disorders can cause kids to be extremely afraid of things or situations to the point that it interferes with daily life.
  • Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) makes it very difficult for kids to focus their attention. A child with ADHD is also more impulsive and harder to settle down than other children.
  • Conduct Disorder leads children to be extremely aggressive and destructive toward other people, pets or property. They may also seem like they don’t care about important but basic rules, such as by doing things like regularly skipping school or running away from home.
  • Depression is a mood disorder that shows up most often during the teenage years. Depression can affect a child or youth’s attitudes and emotions, making them feel unusually sad or irritated for more than two weeks at a time.
  • Psychosis is a condition that involves loss of contact with reality. It affects three percent of the total population but most often appears later in adolescence and early adulthood. It can be seen on its own or with many of the illnesses mentioned in this info sheet.
  • Bipolar Disorder is a mood disorder that may affect up to about 1 percent of young people. It usually starts during the teenage years, but in rare cases, it may be seen in younger children. Bipolar disorder can cause a young person’s moods to change back and forth between extremely high moods, called mania, and extremely low moods, called depression.
  • Eating Disorders are less common in young children, but the risk increases with age. Anorexia affects up to one percent of young males and females aged 15-24, and bulimia affects up to three percent of young people in Canada. Eating disorders involve a distorted body image along with seriously harmful behaviours to manage food and weight, making it difficult to nourish oneself properly.
  • Schizophrenia affects about one percent of the total population and usually shows up between the ages of 15 and 25. Schizophrenia makes it hard for people to think and speak in an organized way. It can also cause people to lose touch with reality.
  • Suicide often goes alongside a mental illness. Suicidal thinking or attempts are also common.

Just as with adults, mental illnesses can affect kids and teens from all family types and cultural backgrounds. Kids and teens in certain situations, though, can be at higher risk for mental illnesses and may also face additional barriers to getting help. Some of these situations include:

  • Young people with a family history of mental illness;
  • New immigrants and refugees;
  • Ingenious children and youth;
  • Young people who’ve gone through a major life change such as moving to a new city or new school;
  • Young people who have faced or witnessed trauma, including abuse;
  • Gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered youth;
  • Young people with substance use problems

It can be hard to tell the difference between normal changes as a child grows, and the symptoms of mental illness. Has your child:

  • Shown sudden changes in their behaviour? (e.g., an active child becomes quiet and withdrawn or a good student suddenly starts getting poor grades)
  • Suddenly changed their feelings? (e.g., a child may show signs of feeling unhappy, worried, guilty, angry, fearful, hopeless or rejected)
  • Started avoiding places or situations that others don’t routinely avoid?
  • Recently complained of physical problems like frequent headaches or stomach aches, problems eating or sleeping, or a general lack of energy?
  • Started suddenly keeping to themselves?
  • Started to use (or is using more) alcohol or other drugs, especially when alone?
  • Shown signs that they’re having trouble coping with regular activities and everyday problems?
  • Shown little regard for the feelings or property of others?
  • Expressed terror or disgust over their weight, or changed how they eat, in unhealthy ways?
  • Started making odd or repetitive movements beyond regular playing?
  • Deliberately hurt themselves or talked of suicide?

If your child is showing one or more of these changes, and it’s impacting their daily life, the best thing to do is talk to them about how they’re feeling and then talk to your family doctor to rule out other explanations. Then, it’s important to connect to other supports in the school and community. Keep in mind that all talk of suicide must be taken seriously.

Unfortunately, only one in four kids and teens in Canada who need mental health treatment can’t get it. There are many reasons for this. Parents and caregivers can have mixed feelings about getting their children help for their mental illness. They may worry about being blamed for their child’s change in behaviour, or they worry about what treatments may be tried. Mental illnesses can be frightening, and many people worry what others will think if they talk about their experiences. The good news is that mental illnesses can be treated successfully, and early treatment can help reduce the impact of a mental illness on your child’s life.

  • Counseling – Cognitive-behavioural therapy helps young people recognize and change thinking patterns and behaviours that are not good for their mental health
  • Family therapy – Can help you look at what you can do as a family to help your child through their mental illness, and manage behaviours.
  • Interpersonal therapy – Helps young people to feel more comfortable interacting with others.
  • Educational interventions – Can help your child by teaching them ways to manage the time in the classroom.
  • Medication – There many different types of medications that are being prescribed to kids including medications for mood, for Anxiety, Psychosis, and ADHD. If you aren’t comfortable with your child taking medications, then express your concerns to your doctor. They can explain which medications, if any, would be right for your child and go over the benefits and risks of medications with you. For young people, medications are usually not the first type of treatment considered. If they’re suggested, they are usually meant to work in connection with other treatments or supports.
  • Support groups – For teens, groups of others who’ve gone through or are going through what you’re going through (sometimes called peer support groups). Groups for family members of someone with a mental illness, incCluding children, to meet other families in similar situations

Reach out for help

The kind of treatment that works best for your child will depend on your child’s needs. Talk to your doctor to learn more about the different options. You can also contact the Canadian Mental Health Association – Calgary Region for more information at
(403) 297-1700 or email: