Mental Illness in Children and Teens

Most of us can look back when we were younger and pin point a time when you felt your first big symptom, and because you were a just a child, you had no idea it could be something more than just that, being a child.

Most people get diagnosed with a mental illness in their early adult life, when they have been dealing with the symptoms for much longer than that. Originally this was going to be another Bipolar Breakdown post on children and teens; However, I understand that children do not only suffer from bipolar disorder. The symptoms you see in a child/teen might look like normal child/teen behavior, but we must look closer.

These changes from the symptoms can make it very hard for children or teens to perform well in school and have healthy social and family lives.

Here are some VERY important things to remember:

  • A thorough evaluation can help determine if treatment is necessary, and which treatments may be most effective.
  • Early treatment can help address a child or teen’s current difficulties and can also help prevent more serious problems in the future.
  • ALWAYS seek immediate help if a child or teen engages in unsafe behavior or talks about wanting to hurt themselves or someone else.
  • Seek help when a child or teen’s behavior or emotional difficulties last for more than a few weeks, causes distress for them, and interferes with their school, home, or with their friends.

It is important to remember that many disorders like anxiety, ADHD, and depression do, in fact, occur during childhood. It may be hard to tell the difference between behaviors and emotions that are consistent with normal child development and those that are more concerning. According to the booklet from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIH), many adults that seek treatment will reflect back on how these disorders affected their childhood and wish that they had received help sooner.

Young children may benefit from an evaluation and treatment if they:

  • Often talk about fears and worries
  • Have frequent tantrums or are intensely irritable much of the time.
  • Sleep too much or too little, have frequent nightmares, or seem sleepy during the day.
  • Are in constant motion and cannot sit quietly (except when they are watching videos or playing video games).
  • Complain about frequent stomachaches or headaches with no medical cause.
  • Are not interested in playing with other children or having a hard time making friends.
  • They struggle academically or have experiences a recent decline in grades.
  • Repeat actions or check things many times out of fear that something bad might happen.

Older children and adolescents may benefit from an evaluation if they:

  • Have low energy.
  • Have lost interest in things that they used to enjoy.
  • Smoke, drink, or use drugs.
  • Have thoughts of suicide.
  • Are spending more and more time alone, and avoiding social activities with friends or family.
  • Sleep too much or too little, or seem sleepy throughout the day.
  • Fear gaining weight, or diet or exercise excessively.
  • Engage in self-harm behaviors (cutting, burning their skin, etc.).
  • Engage in risky and destructive behavior alone or with friends.
  • Have periods of highly elevated energy and activity, and require much less sleep than usual.
  • Say that they think someone is trying to control their mind or that they hear things that other people cannot hear.

The first steps to take as parents are to talk to the child or teen’s teacher, their pediatrician, and ask for a referral to a mental health professional who has experience and expertise on dealing with children.

I was going to name a few treatments, such as medication, but there are honestly many options and that is dependent on what the healthcare provider and the parents agree on.

Here are a few different resources if anyone is in need:

If your child is suffering with suicidal thinking, PLEASE take these signs seriously and call your child’s health care provider.

If you think your child is in crisis and needs immediate help, call 911. You can also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, or text the Crisis Text Line (text HELLO to 741741). The deaf and hard of hearing can contact the Lifeline via TTY (teletypewriter) at 1-800-799-4889

These services are confidential, FREE, and available 24/7!

For this post, I was able to speak with a few people who either had shown symptoms when they were younger, or they have a child who is currently showing symptoms/is diagnosed. Thinking back on your childhood can be very hard to do and triggering and I just want to thank those of you who spoke with me and are allowing me to share your stories.

I decided to ask some questions this time instead of allow the person to free write. I felt like there were a few specific things we should know.


The first person I spoke with dealt with mental illness as a child. The first question I asked was her age when they started to show symptoms. Their answer is:

“I was really young when I first started having pre-suicidal thoughts. I’d say 5 or 6. I was 8 when I had my first formal thoughts of wanting to die and expressed them to another person (my third grade teacher). When I say pre-suicidal I mean things like not wanting to exist and being too interested with sharp objects.”

To me, it was important to see if they were taken seriously when (or if) they asked for help. I understand a lot of people don’t know enough about mental health to look out for those types of symptoms. Some thought it was just them being a kid and having normal child behaviors and feelings.

“Absolutely!! My teacher flipped out. It was his first year of teaching, so the story he told of his friend who committed suicide in college must have been a very fresh wound. By the time I got home from school that day, my mother already had an appointment scheduled with my pediatrician. I was on medication and in play therapy within weeks. While it was probably not appropriate to tell an 8 year old the story my teacher told me, they don’t teach elementary school teachers in the late 80s, early 90s, how to handle suicidal students. And boy did it make an impact. It probably saved my life.”

The 3rd question I asked was if they just assumed that the thoughts they were having were normal and just them being a kid. Sometimes you can dismiss something and assume it’s normal, when it definitely isn’t.

“No. I had recently had a series of traumatic events happen in quick succession, so if anything, things were tied to those. In the span of one week my best, and basically only, friend moved away, my brother called from Germany and told us he had a tumor in his pituitary gland, and my dad had a heart attack. I firmly believe that, while I would have developed bipolar ii anyway, this series of events in such quick succession triggered it at 8. Unfortunately, there is an issue with diagnosing children with bipolar, so they treated my for depression and ADHD (inattentive). Though the term manic depressive was thrown around a lot for not having a formal diagnosis.”


The 2nd person I interviewed had problems when they were younger, and now their daughter is having struggles. This is what they told me to start:

“My daughter is 7 and has been diagnosed with an extreme case of ADHD. Currently treating her and she sees a therapist. As a child I was diagnosed with mild tourettes and OCD while in 1st grade. I saw a neurologist from that age til I was older and moved on to see a psychiatrist. Luckily I outgrew the tourettes for the most part, but had lots of other diagnoses after such as depression, anxiety and bipolar. If you’d like more info and I can help let me know! To add on my daughter, she struggles with defiancy and some depression over it. We have lots of blow ups from her when she is struggling, but luckily things are improving.”

For the 1st question, I was curious to know what symptoms their daughter has at such a young age. A lot of them are symptoms that, understandably, some pass off as “well that’s normal for kids”.

“My daughter struggles to listen, she does great in school but is very defiant at home. Her ADHD definitely brings out anger and frustration for her. Sometimes she will storm off and slam her door and get into crying fits. She struggles with it because she wants to listen, so it seems to bring on some depression for her. Hypersensitivity, defiance, anger and depression. Those are the main topics we discuss in her therapy. She will say really hurtful things and scream at us sometimes, but then once she calms down feels bad for it.”

I wanted to know when they first started seeing signs that something more than just normal child behavior was going on.

“She is turning 8. I feel so bad. Honestly for quite some time. She also has had to deal with her dad coming in and out of her life, so that triggers some of it for sure. But even when that isn’t affecting her the other issues come out. I left her dad when she was 3 and I saw some of the emotional triggers start. I’d say the severe adhd stuff started somewhere around 2 years ago, so when she was around 5, turning 6. It’s tough, it breaks my heart. Also triggers me with my mental health struggles. I feel we are all recently learning how to handle it better. I’m also a recovering addict and have learned a lot about myself through working a program in one of the fellowships. It has really helped me to get advice as well on her and how to handle things.”

I asked them if they assumed the symptoms were just her being a child at the time.

“I didn’t though, I felt from a young age that there was more going on. Just because I saw the trauma when he would disappear again and stop calling. Even then she would fight going to bed and used to kick the wall and scream and fight my dad and I, who I moved back in with at the time I left her dad. It always seemed to be more than just toddler fits. She also has been bullied some for talking as much as she does. She just has a hard time slowing down. She is medicated now, which has helped some but it’s still a big struggle with all the above.”

The 3rd person I interviewed had struggles when they were younger and their son is having symptoms now. This is what they told me to start:

“I got diagnosed when I was 15 with BPD but I was unmedicated until I was 27, my oldest son is diagnosed with psychological problems.”

I wanted to know what their symptoms as a kid were.

“Violence , agitation”

I was curious if they told anyone when they started to feel these symptoms, and if they took them seriously and that they needed help.

“They sort of did as a teacher at school reported me to see a psych.”

As I’ve said above, some parents don’t know something is wrong and can dismiss it. So, I wanted to know if they told their parents and if they were supportive.

“Yes and no they where dealing with my brother with non verbal autism.”

I wanted to know if and how she coped

“Not too good really self medicated. I only really got the proper help when my youngest was born.”

They stated that self medicated by using alcohol and drugs. They also stated that they kind of thought what they were going through was both just being a kid and that something might be wrong. Their son actually told them that they felt like something was wrong with them so, I wanted to see how old their son was and what he was diagnosed with.

“He’s 18. Depression , anxiety , pychosis , PTSD”


My 4th interviewee had problems when they were younger. My 1st question was how old they were when they started feeling like something was wrong.

They answered that they were 9 or 10. They suddenly felt like they wanted to be by themselves more often and did not know why. When they were 12, they went on a trip to Six Flags. They were so excited for the trip, but when they got there on that first day, they dreaded even being there at all. They weren’t able to express themselves and how they felt.

My 2nd question was about the symptoms they were having.

They stated that it was mostly “dread for no reason”. They knew something felt wrong. Their anxiety also manifested when getting irritated. They were angry. They had a really bad temper.

My 3rd question, I was wanting to know if they had anyone take them seriously when asking for help. Unfortunately, due to not knowing how to explain their emotions, no one did.

They are now 32 and diagnosed with depression and anxiety.

My 5th interview remembers having symptoms in their early teenage years. They believe it started after a severe traumatic event. I let them just explain about when it first started.

“I did not deal with the trauma very well. I remember being in 7th grade and I used the end of a paperclip to start cutting my wrists. I couldn’t figure out why I was so drawn to do that, I don’t remember being depressed. I have always had issues with family, mostly my father so that kept whatever feelings I was experiencing alive.”

With trauma, there are a lot of different symptoms that go around.

“I don’t remember exactly what I was feeling at the time. I think I was numb? But I do know I was sad a lot, hypersexual as a 13 year old, obsessive with different things, I was compulsive, I had ticks due to stress, and I’m sure more but I can’t remember them right now lol”

I asked if they sought help and if the people they told took them seriously.

“Someone found out, or saw my wrist, and told the class and said I was just wanting attention. When my parents found out, my dad just looked at me like I was a disappointment. That hurt. I will say though, that my mom ended up taking me to counseling. But, that didn’t last long due to the counselor leaving somewhere else and she said I was fine if I wanted to stop coming. So, I stopped going. Also, my parents did not know about the trauma and the friends that knew said I was a homewrecker and other lovely names.”

I understand with feelings like that, and feeling alone, you might just chalk it up to be normal teenage emotions and behaviors, so I asked if that was the case.

“Honestly, yeah. I just assumed it was all normal teenage emotions and behaviors. I didn’t know any better.”


****** TRIGGER WARNING – SUICIDE *********

My 6th and final interviewee is a little different than the rest. Their son suffered with mental illness, which turned into bipolar disorder I, most of his teenage life and is no longer in the physical world with us. I am beyond grateful to be given this privileged of telling his story. According to their parent, his biggest wish was to advocate for mental health and share his story with people. By being given the chance to tell his story and share it with all of you, he does actually end up helping people, just like he wanted.

I wanted to know what symptoms he was showing and at what age. I let them write as much as they were comfortable with. They actually answered all of my questions in one message.

“I guess he started showing signs around age 14, but I thought it was just adolescence. The social worker at the hospital explained that kids often go undiagnosed because the symptoms do mimic that of teenage hormones. He only got his diagnosis because of his suicide attempt. His diagnosis was at age 16. I guess I’ll start back a few years before his diagnosis. There is so much that I did wrong in that time, but I feel it’s important to share that part, too. I believe my reactions before his diagnosis are pretty common in society and speaks volumes of how negatively mental illness is perceived. His father and I split up when he was 11. We were doing OK being just the two of us. His father and I continued to parent him together. There was none of this nonsense of using him as a pawn. He was our child and we agreed to parent together while living apart. In that time, I met the person I am with today. (name) seemed to be adjusting and even said he felt our environment at home was less tense. When (name) was 13, he became a big brother. He never wanted siblings. By 15, he had a 2nd brother. He began asking to live with his father, which I did not feel comfortable with as his father was more of a buddy than parent when they were together.”

I asked what kind of symptoms he was showing and when he asked for help, was his concerns taken seriously.

“(name) became very erratic. His anger was scary at times, but I chalked it up to being a teenage boy and hoped it would soon pass. He had come to me on a few occasions and told me he believed he had bipolar. His ex girlfriend had bipolar as well as his friends, and I didn’t take him seriously. I thought he wanted to fit in. (dumb mistake!) He told me his anger scared him and I told him it scared me, too, but the teen years were like that. On May 20, 2014, he had asked again about living with his father. I again said no. He went back to his room to play his guitar. I noticed the song he was singing and playing becoming louder and louder. I went back to ask him to quiet down and he drank half a bottle of lighter fluid in front of me. My reaction was wrong…so wrong. I pinned him up against the door and called him a selfish SOB. Then called 911. He was hospitalized for 7 days and received his diagnosis of bipolar mixed episodes. We set him up with both a psychiatrist and psychologist. His time spent in the hospital was helpful because it got him the diagnosis and help he needed. However, they treated the patients more like they were in some sort of behavior boot camp on pediatric psyche. It was very traumatizing for him. I started reading all that I could so I could better help him. He and I grew closer and he shared so much insight with me about his illness. While I could never know how he felt, I could understand what he explained. He was a lot like you with how he explained things. Wise for a 16 year old. He was put on (medication). It would help for a little while until it didn’t. It seemed we were upping his dosage every 2 weeks. He was just so angry all the time. It didn’t take much to set him off. Sometimes he would punch holes in the walls. Sometimes he couldn’t sleep. I deal with insomnia, so assumed it was that. Then he would sleep too much. I didn’t think much of that because he was a teen. I slept a lot. What I didn’t know was that he was cutting himself. He would come home Sometimes with scratches on his arms and/or legs. He told me it was from playing in the woods. Sounded logic so I believed him as he did play in the woods with his friends. There was one night he texted me and I knew he was spiraling. I told him I was calling for help. He told me if I did that, he was going to get aggressive so he could be shot by a cop and not have to do it himself. I never mentioned outside treatment to him again.(He was around 20 at this time). If there was one thing I wish i would have been told in the beginning, it would be that sometimes mental illness is terminal.”

They stated that they weren’t sure the medication he was on helped him as much. He just gave up on the medication. The days at the hospital scared him from ever seeking help again. I let her continue their story.

“Anyway, we had to move. We would be moving to another district and (name) told me he wasn’t sure he could cope with that. So I finally caved and let him live with his father. He missed taking David to appointments and told David mental illness was a crutch. I tried to convince David to live with me, but he refused. I failed in the beginning, but I promise I showed up for him every single time he needed me after that first attempt. I have many regrets, but I know without a doubt I did the best I could.”

“He was 21 when he passed, but had made numerous attempts before. Either myself or his friends were always able to help him in those times. He refused treatment after his hospital stay at age 16. He was traumatized by it. The only real sign he exhibited on that night was a change in mood. However, humans in general have shifts in mood and it often doesn’t result in suicide. Though his no longer here, I am so incredibly proud of my son for fighting as long as he did. I could write a book.”

Before I end this post, I want to make sure that I say again: ALWAYS seek immediate help if a child or teen engages in unsafe behavior or talks about wanting to hurt themselves or someone else. ALWAYS take it seriously if they are telling you something that just seems off. Maybe they are “fighting with their brain” or saying “my brain told me ___”. Even when you think it could just be hormones, take it seriously.

Thank you all for taking the time to read this and get some information on mental health in children and teenagers. Their mental health is just as important as ours.

Love you all!!

-Bipolar Weirdo

****Disclaimer: I am not a healthcare professional. My blog is used to discuss mental health in a way that is easier for people to understand. My information comes from a wide variety of books by trustworthy authors, my personal healthcare providers, and reputable online sources. If you have mental health related questions, I highly recommend you seek a healthcare professional.*****

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