Go Ask Mom

Parents invited to program on children's mental health issues

Mental health professionals will share information with parents who are concerned about their child's worries, anger and other problems as part of National Children's Mental Health Awareness Week. It's Tuesday in Durham.

Posted Updated

Sarah Lindenfeld Hall

During the week, hundreds of mental health professionals across the country will talk to parents and teachers about mental health and kids. It's an effort to raise awareness for the need of early diagnosis and intervention, which are key to children's success in school, with friends and at home.

Dr. Jeff Sapyta, a clinical psychologist and assistant professor at Duke University Medical Center, and Dr. Aureen Wagner with The Anxiety Wellness Center in Cary, will lead one of these discussions from 6:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at South Regional Library, 4505 S. Alston Ave., in Durham.

They'll share some facts for parents who are concerned about their child's worries, anger and other problems. To RSVP, contact Sapyta at 919-416-2451 or email him at jeffrey.sapyta@duke.edu.

Sapyta is part of the Program in Child Affective and Anxiety Disorders at Duke. And he took some time to answer a few questions by email. Here's our interview.
Go Ask Mom: You'll be talking about how to determine if a child needs help. What are some of the key signs that it might be time to get some professional advice?
Sapyta: Certainly significant life events, like a family loss, divorce, military deployment, or major illness in the family, may cause enough stress to consider getting an evaluation. Key signs may include a sudden decrease in school performance, increased fearfulness, increased social withdrawal, changes in sleeping/eating, or increase in anger or aggressive behavior.

Many times, however, parents are concerned about signs and symptoms that come on gradually, or may even be identified by the school or another family member first. In these cases, it's important to check with your doctor if the signs you are seeing are developmentally appropriate. If they are not, or are persistently severe enough to interfere with a child's daily activities, consider seeking treatment from a mental health professional with experience working with families.

Go Ask Mom: How young do you see mental health issues in kids?
Sapyta: I want to make a distinction between developmental and mental health issues. If parents or their pediatrician are concerned about delays in speech, language, or other developmental milestones, they should seek further assessment and appropriate services as soon as it is identified as a concern. For children with strictly emotional or behavioral issues, we typically don't see children younger than 5 years old. We do know from research that half of all mental health issues start before the age of 14, and many of these can be seen in early elementary school.
Go Ask Mom: Are we seeing more of it? Or are we just more aware of it?
Sapyta: It's a good question. I think discussing child mental health issues is less taboo these days. And certainly the internet now allows parents to get educated quickly about emotional and behavioral concerns from experts if they go to reputable sources (e.g., www.nimh.nih.gov).
Go Ask Mom: Why is it important to get the word out about mental health issues in kids?
Sapyta: We know that early identification and treatment of mental health issues can go a long way in helping children not suffer from these disorders later in life. And my hope is that some families may consider seeing someone about a child's concerns while it's still emerging and relatively manageable. For example, some of the mental health issues myself and my colleagues specialize in, like child anxiety, can be greatly improved by a relatively short-term program of cognitive behavior therapy. For serious or longer-term issues a combination of medication and effective talking therapies like cognitive behavioral therapy is often the best approach, and they have been shown to greatly improve a child's quality of life.
For more about National Children's Mental Health Awareness Week, click here.

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