The topic of children and mental health is a bit overwhelming. This is because it is such a complex and important topic. I decided to narrow it down by writing about the importance of starting children in therapy, based on my own experiences.
Challenges early on
I was diagnosed with my fourth concussion as a Sophomore in high school. These concussions were the result of soccer, which was my life at the time. I played on both my high school team and a traveling team. I was practicing 5 days per week and spending my weekends playing in tournaments. My life seemed to revolve around the sport that I loved. So, when my doctor suggested that I stop playing, it felt like my world stopped.
Less than one year later, I lost my closest aunt to breast cancer. My world was turned upside down yet again. I was sad and confused, but I did not realize how deeply these events affected me. Finally, my mom suggested that I go to therapy.
Therapy and my diagnosis
I was hesitant to go to therapy at first. I didn’t want to talk to someone that I had never met before. Besides, I thought I was doing just fine. However, within the first ten minutes of my session, I was in tears. I had been holding so many emotions and feelings inside and they all came pouring out at once.
I was diagnosed with depression. After the first few sessions, I recognized that my grades had been slipping, I had been isolating from my friends, and I was irritable and unhappy. My therapist helped me understand how these events had affected my life and we processed how they connected to my diagnosis.
Traumatic experiences are different for everyone
I tell this story to help people understand the mental health effects that traumatic events have on children and adolescents. Before diving deeper, I think it is first important to say that all events will affect people differently. You and your best friend could experience the same event, but you may not have the same reaction. You might be traumatized while your friend walks away, unchanged.
This is one of the many reasons that it is difficult to talk about trauma. We all need to understand that there is not one list of “acceptable traumas”. Everyone’s experiences are different. All trauma is valid. A traumatic event may be losing a pet, a global pandemic (looking at you, COVID-19), a natural disaster, grieving the death of a close friend, a serious injury or they could be one of the 10 Adverse Childhood Experiences identified by the CDC-Kaiser Permanente study.
What are Adverse Childhood Experiences?
Since the mid 1990s there have been many studies on Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and their lasting effects. The CDC discovered that there were ten exposures that had a strong connection to chronic health problems. Some of these exposures include:
- witnessing domestic violence
- parental incarceration
- parental divorce
Researchers were able to track adults with health conditions that experienced these events as children. They found a connection between high ACE scores, high number of experiences, and serious health problems. Some of the health problems they focus on are:
- heart disease
- lung cancer
- substance abuse.
The study first recognized the lifelong effects of ACEs but there is also a connection to ACEs and child mental health. Approximately 45 percent of childhood onset mental health disorders can be tied to childhood adversity.
That means that for every ten children diagnosed with a mental health disorder, almost five of those children have experienced multiple ACEs. These 5 children will have a higher chance of heart disease, depression, hepatitis, lung cancer and other concerns.
In reality, ACEs are common. Roughly 67 percent of the population has experienced at least one ACE, and about 13 percent has experienced four or more. It should be noted that not all 67 percent will be diagnosed with cancer or heart disease. It means they have an increased chance of a chronic problem. Please know, this information has been collected in studies and does not guarantee that it will happen to you or the people you know. However, it is important to recognize that these things are real and could happen, which is why discussing it is crucial.
What can parents do?
I know I wrote about a very serious topic and I am sure many of you reading have questions and concerns. But, I have good news! There are some things we can do to help our children that have gone through traumatic events. We can listen, we can give them support, and we can get them services to help them, like therapy.
Children are resilient. If they experience a traumatic event, it does not mean they have to be affected now or later in life. They can recover. It is important to recognize the signs of mental health problems and try to get your child help before these events impact them even more. By putting protective factors in place, like a therapist, children may have less of a chance of experiencing life-long effects. Other protective factors could be positive peer groups or activities, educating them on social and emotional skills, promoting healthy relationships, and encouraging safe choices. We may also help them realize that they do not have to be defined by their experiences.
An additional resource
Below is a link to a wonderful TedTalk presented by Dr. Nadine Burke Harris. If you are interested, this TedTalk gives a much deeper description of what happens within your body after a traumatic event and what the ongoing effects of this can be.