January 27th marks the annual Bell Let’s Talk day, dedicated to promoting the open discussion of issues facing those with mental illness, and helping to end the stigma surrounding mental illness.

The Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) estimates that one in five Canadians, and 10–20% of Canadian youths, will develop a mental illness at some point in their lives. This is an issue that indirectly affects every Canadian.

Parents for Children’s Mental Health estimates that 70% of childhood mental health issues can be solved with early intervention and therapy, which makes identifying and treating illness early the key to recovery and improving quality of life. There are several warning signs to look out for in your child.

Warning Signs of Depression

The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) lists the following symptoms of depression in children:

  • pretending to be sick
  • changes in appetite and weight
  • sleep problems
  • loss of interest in school, hobbies
  • withdrawal from family members and friends, or acting overly clingy
  • irritability
  • fatigue

It’s also worth noting that depression is often accompanied by anxiety, which can play an even bigger role than the depression itself.

Warning Signs of Anxiety

Symptoms of anxiety to watch for in your child include:

  • irrational or excessive fear
  • excessive distress, out of proportion to the situation
  • recurring headaches, stomach aches, and being too sick to attend school
  • difficulty with normal, everyday tasks
  • avoidance of specific activities (which likely trigger your child’s anxiety)

Other Signs of Mental Health Issues in Kids

Children’s Mental Health Ontario (CMHO) also notes the following characteristics and behaviours as signs of an underlying mental health disorder:

  • getting significantly lower marks in school
  • avoiding friends and family
  • having frequent outbursts of anger and rage
  • losing his or her appetite
  • having difficulty sleeping
  • rebelling against authority
  • drinking a lot and/or using drugs
  • not doing the things he or she used to enjoy
  • worrying constantly
  • experiencing frequent mood swings
  • not concerned with his or her appearance
  • obsessed with his or her weight
  • lacking energy or motivation
  • hitting or bullying other children
  • attempting to injure him or herself

Natural and Alternative Treatment Options

While medications are commonly used to treat mental health conditions, there are several natural and alternative treatments that are effective in treating symptoms and increasing quality of life. A common and effective treatment is talk therapy, which is that stereotypical scene of a patient in a therapist’s office, discussing their problems.

Jesse Hanson, MA, PhD, RP, clinical director and co-founder at Helix Healthcare Group says that if patients and their healthcare providers are only focusing on traditional medicine, they’re going to miss treating half the brain.

“Traditional talk therapy only impacts the left brain. In order to integrate the right brain, it’s very important to integrate some type of play or creative elements, and children are more in touch with this anyways,” Hanson says. “I think that there is a time and place for traditional medicine and it can work alongside with alternative therapies.”

One such alternative, and medication-free treatment option, Hanson suggests for children dealing with mental illness is meditation.

“Things like playing with toys, getting them to start to focus on breathing and walking, art therapy, play therapy, hiking, walking, role playing. Meditation does not always have to involve stillness,” he says. “It can be moving based meditation such as tai chi, yoga, and even dance. Using sound therapy, play therapy, movement therapy, and art therapy are also very effective in treating children with anxiety, depression, ADHD, and even early signs of bipolar.”

Hanson, who specializes in neuroscience, somatic psychology and holistic healing, says that depending on the child and the severity of their situation, alternative therapies can be used on their own or work in conjunction with traditional treatments.

Hanson says he worked with a 9-year-old boy at Helix for treatment of stress and ADHD using sound therapy and saw noticeable results.

“He was very shut-down and quiet; he would not open up through just talk therapy,” he says. “Once we introduced him to sound therapy, he began opening up and was comfortable talking about what was troubling him.”

While the thought of having a child with a mental health diagnosis can be scary or daunting, parents should know that they are not alone and there are ways they can help their child through a difficult time.

“Parents just need to realize that whatever is going on with their kid, it’s a cry for help,” says Hanson. “If you catch it early on, you’re saving a lot of time and money on therapy when they grow up.”

Helpful Resources for Parents of Kids with Mental Health Issues

The CMHO lists many excellent resources for parents looking to get help for their child and navigating the healthcare system, as well as real-life stories from those who have gone through it. PCMH also offers a number of helpful resources for parents whose children are living with mental illness.

Also, don’t forget that your pediatrician is an excellent resource if you suspect your child might have a mental illness. They will know what your child is normally like and may, with your help, be able to pick up on any changes in behaviour.

Open up the conversation of mental health with your family and friends. Destroying the stigma that surrounds it is the first step towards helping the people who are affected each and every day.

Caitlin McCormack is a writer, editor and full-time mama to one cool little dude. When she’s not spending time at the park or working on recipes in the kitchen, you can find her lifting weights, growing her own veggies, or enjoying some precious time with her shift-working husband. Read her blog at Big City Mama or follow her on Twitter @Caitlin_Writes.

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