Signs and Symptoms of Mental Illness in Children

According to the Mayo Clinic children can experience a range of mental health conditions, including:

  • Anxiety disorders. Children who have anxiety disorders — such as obsessive compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, social phobia and generalized anxiety disorder — experience anxiety as a persistent problem that interferes with their daily activities.
  • Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). This condition typically includes a combination of issues, such as difficulty sustaining attention, hyperactivity and impulsive behavior.
  • Autism. Autism is one of a group of serious developmental problems called autism spectrum disorders that appear in early childhood — usually before age 3. Though symptoms and severity vary, all autism disorders affect a child's ability to communicate and interact with others.
  • Eating disorders. Eating disorders — such as anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa and binge-eating disorder — are serious conditions. Children can become so preoccupied with food and weight that they focus on little else.
  • Mood disorders. Mood disorders — such as depression and bipolar disorder — can cause a child to feel persistent feelings of sadness or extreme mood swings.

On their website, the Mayo Clinic lists the following warning signs or signals that a student might have a mental health condition:

  • Schizophrenia. This chronic mental illness causes a child to lose touch with reality (psychosis). 
  • Mood changes. Look for feelings of sadness or withdrawal that last at least two weeks or severe mood swings that cause problems in relationships at home or school.
  • Intense feelings. Be aware of feelings of overwhelming fear for no reason — sometimes with a racing heart or fast breathing — or worries or fears intense enough to interfere with daily activities.
  • Behavior changes. This includes drastic changes in behavior or personality, as well as dangerous or out-of-control behavior. Fighting frequently, using weapons or expressing a desire to badly hurt others also are warning signs.
  • Difficulty concentrating. Look for signs of trouble focusing or sitting still, both of which might lead to poor performance in school.
  • Unexplained weight loss. A sudden loss of appetite, frequent vomiting or use of laxatives might indicate an eating disorder.
  • Physical harm. Sometimes a mental health condition leads to suicidal thoughts or actual attempts at self-harm or suicide.
  • Substance abuse. Some kids use drugs or alcohol to try to cope with their feelings.

When a teacher observes changes in school performance, poor grades despite strong efforts, excessive worry or anxiety, hyperactivity, persistent disobedience and/or aggressive behavior and temper tantrums, it is important to seek the assistance of staff within the school qualified to assess and support students.