Mental illness on rise in children

MICHELLE DUFF
Last updated 05:00 26/03/2012

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Increasing numbers of young children are being medicated for anxiety and depression, with mental health providers saying the problem has gone beyond common moodiness.

Youth service providers have seen spikes in the number of children referred for treatment, and Pharmac figures show prescriptions for some mood-stabilising drugs have almost doubled in the past five years.

Wellington's Central Regional Health School is so concerned with the dramatic increase in pupils with mental illnesses on its roll that it has called a conference with principals from mainstream primary schools.

This month, the school, which caters for 166 primary and secondary school pupils in the lower North Island who are deemed too ill to attend mainstream schools, hosted local principals, Education Ministry staff, and Capital & Coast District Health Board staff for a coaching session on how to recognise mental health problems in pupils.

Principal Ken McIntosh said that a decade ago the school catered solely for children with physical illnesses. Now 47 per cent had a mental illness, a leap of about 20 per cent in the past few years.

"That's a reasonably significant jump. We want schools to be aware that they are able to work with students within their school early on, and when things do get past the normal, healthy anxiety and start to impact on kids they know the kinds of services that are available to help."

Anxiety problems could range from post-traumatic stress, to phobias or obsessive compulsive disorders. Although some anxiety was normal, it was a problem when it began to affect the quality of a child's life and impaired learning.

Evolve Wellington Youth Service manager Kirsten Smith said the number of young people using the service had ballooned in the past two years.

"It's a massive issue, and we've been seeing the same trend in the last couple of years – we've noticed a huge spike in mental health-related issues going on in young people."

She blamed high youth unemployment for increasing depression and anxiety problems in older teenagers, with their inability to get a job battering their self-esteem and leaving them feeling worthless.

Pharmac figures show an average 10 per cent increase in prescriptions of mood-stabilising drugs for children aged five and over compared to five years ago.

But the most staggering increase is in anti-psychotic medication among 10 to 19-year-olds, which has risen 47 per cent since 2007 – with 3240 children taking the drugs in 2011. Massey University psychology professor Ian Evans said this could be due to the "overpathologising" of childhood behaviour that could be due to normal hormonal changes. Medication was often prescribed when therapy would work just as well.

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"There's a great willingness in society in general to give labels, and to attribute problems to some form of illness."

However, the combined stress of school, widening economic disadvantages and modern technology meant today's kids were struggling to cope, he said.

Mental Health Foundation chief executive Judi Clements said adolescent mental health was a major concern.

"Growing up is a hard time. Young people have to deal with issues in school, in their home life, their emerging sexuality, developing friendships ... it's faster-moving than it used to be, there is more alcohol misuse and more cyber-bullying."

The foundation had started a pilot programme in Hawke's Bay to analyse school environments and find out if they are conducive to mental health. If successful, they hope to roll it out nationwide. "There's a problem, and we need to know what to do."

Education Ministry special education group manager Brian Coffey said mental health problems among pupils were a concern, in part because depressive disorders usually started in adolescence.

The ministry was looking at how schools and support services could work better together to help pupils.

HOW TO TELL

There are signs to watch out for if you are concerned your child or teenager is suffering from anxiety or depression, Mental Health Foundation chief executive Judi Clements says.

"If they start behaving in a way that is unusual for them and it goes on for a while – not just having an off day – but perhaps being weary and wanting to stay in their room, not wanting to go to school and having difficulty sleeping, changing their eating habits and not wanting to eat, or binge-eating."

Other signs could include a lack of interest or motivation, and withdrawing from friends.

Parents and teachers could help by keeping up a positive relationship with the child.

The latest survey of mental health among secondary school pupils in New Zealand, completed in 2007, found a significant number of pupils were neither satisfied with their lives nor had good mental health.

- The Dominion Post

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