Eleven Warning Signs of Mental Illness in Children & Adolescents

The “Action Signs” Project is a new tool kit to help identify children with mental health disorders. Approximately fifty percent of serious mental health conditions manifest themselves by the age of fourteen and as many as one in ten youngsters has a serious mental health condition that impairs their functioning in either home or school or in the community.  Family practice doctors and pediatricians are in an ideal position to identify these children, and the eleven signs identified in The “Action Signs” Project can be extremely useful.

The “Action Signs” Project  tool kit that was recently released by the REACH institute and was funded by The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. The authors of the tool kit spent the last ten years sifting through studies and interviewed more than 6,000 families and children in an effort to identify the most efficient and simplest method for identifying the most serious mental health disorders.

The researchers identified eleven signs that require immediate action. They include severe mood swings that cause problems in relationships, intense worries or fears that get in the way of daily activities, sadness that lasts more than two weeks, or sudden and overwhelming fear brought on for no apparent reason.

Dr. Peter Jensen, a Mayo professor of psychiatry, was the principal investigator on this study. He noted that there is frequently a disconnect that occurs between what a child says and how a parent interprets that message.  For example, four to five percent of parents respond “yes” when asked if their child has “ever talked about wanting to kill himself or made a plan to do so?”  But then, when a follow up question is asked, “Has he seen anyone for that,’ they’ll say ‘no’ two out of three times,” Jensen said in an interview with Minnesota Public Radio.  Jensen said part of the problem is that parents don’t always recognize when the threats or behaviors their children display aren’t normal.

The 11 action steps listed in The “Action Signs” Project are designed to make these situations very clear. For example a child who has severe Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder is described in these 17 words: “extreme difficulty in concentrating or staying still that puts you in physical danger or causes school failure”.

It should be noted that that the eleven action signs won’t be able to identify every child with a mental health problem. The developers of the tool kit suggest the tool kit will identify at least half of the children who are currently undiagnosed.

These are the eleven signs:

  • Feeling very sad or withdrawn for more than two weeks.
  • Seriously trying to harm or kill yourself, or making plans to do so.
  • Sudden overwhelming fear for no reason, sometimes with a racing heart or fast breathing.
  • Involvement in many fights, using a weapon, or wanting to badly hurt others.
  • Severe out-of-control behavior that can hurt yourself or others.
  • Not eating, throwing up, or using laxatives to make yourself lose weight.
  • Intense worries or fears that get in the way of your daily activities.
  • Extreme difficulty in concentrating or staying still that puts you in physical danger or causes school failure.
  • Repeated use of drugs or alcohol.
  • Severe mood swings that cause problems in relationships.

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