Mental Illness in Kids: Finding the Right Solutions

Perseverance is key for parents seeking help.

Mental Illness In Kids:  Finding The Right Solutions

Image(s) licensed by Ingram Publishing


Natasha was seven years old when she first experienced anxiety. Outings to the movie theatre, an activity most of Natasha’s peers looked forward to, became a horrifying experience. Anytime the film drew close to its climax, Natasha would shield herself from the screen, or sprint out of the theatre in fear, unable to handle even a pinch of suspense.

Demobilizing nightmares and constant feelings of unease made it difficult for Natasha to function, both at school and at home. Concerned, Natasha’s parents took her to a doctor, and after being tested, she received her first diagnosis – Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). It was the first in a series of diagnoses Natasha would face throughout her childhood and adolescence.

Know the signs

Natasha’s story is not uncommon. Approximately one in five school-aged youth, ages 4 to 19, experience mental health issues.

According to the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), the number of 12 -19 year olds at risk for developing depression is a staggering 3.2 million. From behavioural disorders like ADHD, to mood disorders such as anxiety and depression, mental health struggles among youth are on the rise. But more than 80% are not receiving the treatment they need.

The stigma surrounding mental illness has deterred many Canadians from discussing their experiences with others and seeking treatment. Just 50% of Canadians would tell friends or co-workers that they have a family member with a mental illness, compared to 72% who would discuss a diagnosis of cancer, according to CMHA.

For parents, there may be concern that their child will be labeled. ‚”A fear of being labeled can lead many to not seek the support they may need,” says Jack Veitch, health promoter and educator with CMHA Haliburton, Kawartha, Pine Ridge. “When children have the benefit of supportive and understanding parents, educators and peers, they are far better equipped to face life’s challenges.”

Parents may also be unfamiliar with the signs and symptoms of mental illness in children (see sidebar) or are unsure of how to respond to these symptoms. “I find people always want to make sure they see every symptom of an illness before seeking help,” says Veitch. ‚”If you notice one symptom, that’s enough to talk to someone about it. Don’t hesitate.”

Another block to treatment may be the system itself. Finding the right help and the right diagnosis in a timely manner can be an extremely frustrating process for parents.

Help is available in many different forms, including doctors, courses, community and services, help lines, and mobile resources (see sidebar). But the process of finding the right solutions for each child can often be long and filled with multiple referrals, diagnoses and prescriptions.

Certainly, this was the case for Natasha’s parents. Natasha’s diagnosis changed from ADHD to depression (at age 13) and then generalized anxiety disorder (at 15). Joleen, mom to A.J., had a similar experience. Between the ages of 4 and 15, her son was diagnosed with more than six disorders before arriving at his final diagnosis.

Dr. Anthony Levitt, who heads the new Family Navigation Project at Sunnybrook Hospital, acknowledges the problem faced by many parents of kids with mental health issues. In a recent CBC interview, he noted that, “Parents often tell us that they get in a lineup and when they get to the front of the line for service, they’re told they are in the wrong line.”

The goal of the Family Navigation Project, said Dr. Levitt, is to “find the right line at the right time for kids who are suffering from mental health or addiction issues.” Formally launching this spring, the project is a phone and Internet service that links callers to the appropriate community resource. While the project is being piloted in Toronto, Dr. Levitt says he hopes the FNP will become an exportable model that can be used in communities across the country.

Advice for parents

Joleen’s story is one of persistence and dedication to the wellbeing of her child. When A.J. was just three, he experienced suicidal ideation. Alarmed, Joleen immediately contacted her pediatrician. Before his 10th birthday, he had been diagnosed with a slew of mental illnesses, including: ADHD, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), generalized anxiety disorder and bipolar disorder.

Working as her son’s case manager, Joleen decided to take matters into her own hands. “I did a lot of research, knocked on tons of doors, drove people crazy until they didn’t have a choice but to listen to me.” Finally, when A.J. was 15, he received his final diagnosis – Asperger’s.

While the process was frustrating, Joleen says perseverance is critical. “Mental health works on a case by case basis. The plan that works for your family may be totally different than someone else’s. You can’t quit. If you quit, your kids will quit. You have to teach your children where to get the information they need,” she says.

With years of experience as her son’s advocate, Joleen has lots of advice to share with other parents who believe their child has a mental illness:

  • Document your child’s symptoms and behaviour, making sure you are open and honest. Ask your child’s teacher to note any behavioural shifts and unusual changes in attitude as well.
  • Take your notes with you when you see the family doctor or pediatrician about your child’s behaviour. This can aid in the proper referral and diagnosis and may help reduce potential wait times.
  • Educate yourself. Find out what resources and services are available in your community, province and country and get in touch.
  • Talk to your kids about what’s going on. “Often, kids think it’s their fault for feeling the way they do,” says Joleen. “They are ashamed and all they need is to be listened to. Listening is half the battle. And be specific in your questions,’I’ve noticed this, have you noticed anything?’ Start where they are comfortable.”
  • Connect with other families who are going through similar situations. Listen to their stories and benefit from their insights. Know that you are not alone.
  • Stay focused on your child. Your goal is to help your child find balance, by providing them with tools to cope with the obstacles they will face.
  • Remain hopeful that you will find proper help for your child.

Today, both Natasha and A.J. are doing well, but would not have been able to get to this point without the help of their families. Natasha, a nursing student, says her parents “encouraged me to go after all the things I want, despite any setbacks.” Their philosophy is simple: mental illness does not have to impede a child’s success or happiness.

Recognizing Symptoms of Mental Illness

1. Heightened emotions – anger, fear that seems to come from nowhere
2. Drop in grades and lack of ability to concentrate
3. Anxiety or nervousness about simple tasks and social situations
4. Rapid mood changes or swings
5. Acting out by a formerly well behaved child



Kinark Child & Family Services
A children’s mental health organization that provides help to children and youth, families and communities. Campbellford 705 653-4208 or 800 230-8531, Cobourg 905-372-4361,

Northumberland Hills Hospital Community Mental Health Services
Provides individual and group therapy, psychiatric consultation and cognitive behavioural focus by registered professionals in the disciplines of psychology and social work. 905-377-9891, 888-294-7595.

Campbellford Community Mental Health Centre
Offers a broad range of assessment, treatment, education and consultation services to you, your family and caregivers when it’s needed most. 705 653-1140,

Canadian Mental Health Association Haliburton, Kawartha, Pine Ridge
Promotes and supports mental health recovery and wellness by working with individuals, families and community partners. 705 748-6711,866-990-9956,



Kids’ Help Phone
800 668-6868

Mental Health Service Information Ontario Line
Free. Confidential. Anonymous. 24 hours.
866 531-2600

4 County Crisis – Community Mental Health Crisis Response Program
705 745-6484, 866-995-9933



Resources Around Me is a new tool on the Always There app from Kids Help Phone. Enables kids to search their area for counseling and mental health resources.

Author: Kiera Toffelmire

Kiera Toffelmire is a freelance writer and the community coordinator for Trent Active Minds.

Share This Post On