When Does My Child Need Mental Health Services?

Many everyday challenges can affect a child's feelings and behaviors. It is important to distinguish between typical behavior changes caused by development or everyday stress, and signs of more serious problems. Problems deserve more attention when they are severe, persistent, and impact on the child's daily activities.

Children express emotional or behavioral problems in many different ways. Sometimes it is not easy to know when your child may need mental health services. Seek help for your child if you are concerned by any of the following:

  • Changes in appetite or sleep
  • Social withdrawal
  • Fearfulness
  • Behavior that seems to slip back to an earlier phase such as bed-wetting
  • Sadness or tearfulness
  • Feelings of worthlessness
  • Frequent rule breaking or behavior problems at school or home
  • A tendency to have frequent injuries
  • Self-destructive behavior (for example, head banging or "cutting")
  • Aggression towards others
  • Threats to harm self

What Treatments are Available?

Mental disorders are treatable. For most mental disorders there are a range of treatments. Most treatments fall under two general categories, psychosocial and pharmacological. A combination of the two, known as multimodal therapy, can sometimes be even more effective. Treatments generally need to be tailored to the client and to client preferences.

Psychotherapy is a learning process that is mostly accomplished through talking. Psychotherapy can be done with an individual, couples, families and groups. Therapists help the participants develop effective ways of understanding and handling their problems. Often psychotherapy will involve teaching parents how to better meet the needs of their child.

Pharmacology is the use of medication. Medications can affect brain activity such as mood, attention, or impulse control.

Disorders are diagnosed by observing signs and symptoms. A skilled professional will take into account the child's age and developmental level. Some behaviors may be quite typical at one age but suggest mental illness at another.

The evaluation process usually consists of gathering information from several sources: child, parents, teachers, and pediatricians, and may include observations and testing.

For children with serious emotional disorders, an approach involving care management and coordination of services from more than one agency may be helpful.

Who Provides Treatment?

Your child's doctor may provide mental health treatment. However, your doctor may recommend that you seek help from a mental health specialist. Mental health specialists include:

  • Psychiatrist (MD) - medical doctor who has specialized in the treatment of mental disorders. Psychiatrist can prescribe medication and may also provide psychotherapy.
  • Psychologist (PhD) – has completed a doctorate in psychology, and is typically involved in research, psychological testing, and providing psychotherapy.
  • Social worker (MSW/LCSW) or marriage and family therapist(MFT/LMFT) – has competed a master's degree in social work, psychology, or counseling and typically provides psychotherapy, care management, and supportive services.
  • Behavioral therapist- has completed training in behavior interventions and typically teaches new skills

Where Can I Get Help?

First, consult your child's doctor. Ask for a complete health examination of your child. Tell the doctor about the behaviors that concern you. Ask your doctor if further evaluation or treatment by a specialist in child behavioral problems is needed.

You may also want to contact your child's school. Children spend much of their day at school. Teachers and school counselors may also be able to help.

Your child may be eligible to receive mental health services from the County Mental Health Plan. The County has a toll free number available 24 hours a day. They will be able to talk with you in your preferred language, and answer questions about your child's behavior. Their services and phone numbers are listed in the county government pages of your local phone book.

Where Can I Get More Information?

Center for Mental Health Services
Child, Adolescent, and Family Branch
KEN Clearing House:
(800) 789-2647

National Alliance for the Mentally Ill
Children and Adolescents Network
(800) 950-6264

National Mental Health Association
(800) 969-6642

National Institute of Mental Health
(888) 826-9438