Children’s mental health is probably not something many of us often think about. Many would wonder, ‘A 6 year old, with anxiety and depression? How could they be, over what?’ The reality is, our human brains are complex organs consisting of 100 billion neurons, and poor mental health poses a risk even for children as young as 6.
During childhood our brains grow and develop in direct response to our environment. So when we ask if a 6 year old little girl named Katrina could be depressed, the answer is most certainly yes.
Why or how? An overwhelming cause we encounter is prolonged childhood trauma. Childhood trauma or toxic stress involves a series of stressful events that occur between infancy and adolescence. Trauma can range from physical and sexual abuse, to lack of basic needs such as housing or adequate food.
In Katrina’s case her family lives in deep poverty, often struggling to have enough to eat. Her father has been in jail for the past 6 months due to domestic violence; Katrina often saw her father hit her mother. One time it got so bad that Katrina’s mother was sent to the hospital with multiple injuries and a broken arm.
Katrina now lives in a crowded apartment with several other families where she and her mother share a bed in the living room. She is raised primarily by her single mother, who works long hours to make ends meet. The situations that Katrina has experienced in life thus far could all be described as traumatic.
When trauma happens during early childhood like it has for Katrina, it’s more likely that it will have a lasting negative impact. The brain does 90% of its growing during this period, and like a sponge, absorbs all the information it can from the environment. If most of a child’s environment is turbulent, frightening, or unstable, the child’s brain will respond accordingly.
These children are more likely to suffer from anxiety, ADHD, depression, and other mental illnesses through adulthood. For Katrina, when she hears yelling or fighting in her environment, she becomes triggered. Her anxiety kicks in, causing her to relive the experience of watching her mom get hurt.
In the children we serve, anxiety often presents itself physically in ways such as headaches, belly-aches, or other physical ailments. Katrina also “zones out” during school- This is known as disassociation, and it’s often mistaken for daydreaming. Dissociation happens when we are experiencing or witnessing something so horrific that our conscious mind leaves our body as a way to protect ourselves.
When children have dissociated as a result of trauma, it can reoccur during long periods of time where they have to maintain their attention, such as in school.
Children’s mental health issues and trauma are more common than most people assume. Roughly 70% of adults in America report experiencing at least once incident of trauma throughout their lifetime1. Children who have experienced prolonged trauma, combined with poverty are more likely to suffer from not only mental illnesses, but illnesses like heart disease, cancer, homelessness and substance abuse2. If we can work to prevent childhood trauma, we can prevent further health issues from occurring into adulthood. With childhood trauma on the rise, and youth mental health hospitalizations up 50% since 20073, the time to address the mental health of kids like Katrina is more important than ever.
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Director of Children’s Programs, Illumination Foundation
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