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Signs of Mental Health Problems In Children

To learn more about both the effects of bullying and mental health and what you can do, you are invited to a seminar on May 10, 2016:  Understanding the Legal Obligations of a School District Regarding Bullying and Student Mental Health

By Marion M. Walsh, Esq.

Every parent and school professional must be aware of the mental health crisis confronting our youth and take steps to understand and advocate. Parents and schools must act together to protect children become educated on risk factors and symptoms.

If your child has a mental health issue, it is important to understand how to seek community supports and to understand the legal obligations of your school district.  Too many parents view mental health issues as a “private issue” or believe that things will improve. It is almost impossible for parents to handle mental health issues alone.

Signs of Mental Health Problems in Children:

Parents must be aware of signs of mental illness. Early identification is key to help children.  The Mayo Clinic and other professionals list the following signs of mental illness in children, but the list is not exhaustive:

  • Mood changes: Look for feelings of sadness or withdrawal that last at least two weeks or severe mood swings that cause problems in relationships at home or school. Some students simply withdraw. School avoidance or physical symptoms without physical causes can also be a sign of mental distress.
  • Intense feelings: Be aware of feelings of overwhelming fear for no reason — sometimes with a racing heart or fast breathing — or worries or fears intense enough to interfere with daily activities.
  • Behavior changes: Look for drastic changes in behavior or personality, as well as dangerous or out-of-control behavior. Fighting frequently or expressing a desire to hurt others also are warning signs.
  • Difficulty concentrating: Look for signs of trouble focusing or sitting still, both of which might lead to poor performance in school.
  • Unexplained weight loss: A sudden loss of appetite, frequent vomiting or use of laxatives might indicate an eating disorder.
  • Physical harm: Sometimes a mental health condition leads to suicidal thoughts or actual attempts at self-harm or suicide.
  • Substance abuse: Some children use drugs or alcohol to try to cope with their feelings.

School District Legal Obligations to Help:

Littman Krooks special needsIf a child is showing signs of mental illness, it is important for parents to understand school district legal obligations and also how to get community support.   Not every child with mental health issues has a disability but if a condition affects educational performance, the school district has an obligation to refer a student for special education and related services.

  • Pursuant to the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act (IDEA), 20 USC §1400, seq. and parallel state law, school districts have a responsibility to identify and provide appropriate services to students with disabilities, including those who have an emotional disturbance or disability, including another health impairment, such as ADHD.
  • As the Supreme Court noted in Honig v. Doe in 1988, “Among the most poorly served of disabled students were emotionally disturbed children: Congressional statistics revealed that for the school year immediately preceding passage of the Act, the educational needs of 82 percent of all children with emotional disabilities went unmet. See S. Rep. No. 94-168, p. 8 (1975).”  

If your child has mental health needs impacting education, you should refer your child for special education services and, if the child has a disability, he or she should qualify for an IEP and receive special education supports, such as counseling, flexibility with assignments, or a therapeutic environment. Some children with mental health needs may need building level help or need accommodations under Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act.  

Steps to Take:

On a broader scale,  work with your school district and community to develop a task force to create systems and policies to proactively address student mental health needs and make sure interventions are in place.  Talk to your child’s school district administrators about making mental health and social emotional health a priority in your school district and ask about what programs are in place to ensure children are served.   Much training is available and many organizations have resources to help.

As just three examples of what you can do:

  1. Become Certified in Youth Mental Health First Aid
  2. Consider taking the Sandy Hook Promise, which encourages safer schools and more mental health treatment.
  3.  Attend a screening of No Letting Go, on mental health and youth and one family’s story, aimed at helping to end the stigma:

Read more on how to educate, advocate and support mental health awareness month by clicking here.

Learn more about our special needs planning and special education advocacy services at www.littmankrooks.com or www.specialneedsnewyork.com.


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