School-age children in Illinois get tested for hearing and vision but not other disorders like mental illnesses. Some advocates like Suzanne Andriukaitis, executive director at the National Alliance on Mental Illness of Greater Chicago (NAMI), say that needs to change.
Mental Health America of Illinois estimates that 6 million children in the U.S. have a mental illness. One in 10 – or more than 350,000 – children in Illinois suffer from a mental illness.
This is why Andriukaitis believes children need to be tested for mental illnesses in schools.
Andriukaitis said not enough parents get their children tested for mental illnesses. She believes the stigma attached to the phrase “mental illness” deters parents from being proactive in examining their children on a regular basis. She said, often times, parents find out when it’s too late.
“Mental illness issues are something that people tend not to care about until it happens to them or somebody in their family, or somebody they love,” said Andriukaitis.
Meryl Sosa, director of the Illinois Psychiatric Society, said lack of education and not acknowledging signs, can lead to children going undiagnosed.
“You have kids who are coming from families who aren’t well educated on mental health; they think maybe that their kids are just being bad kids. But they might just have a mental illness,” Sosa said.
Extreme sensitivity, difficulty concentrating and poor communication are signs that a child could be depressed. Constant worrying and fear of making mistakes are signs of a child with anxiety problems. Having a short temper, talking fast about various things and a lack of focus can be signs of bipolar disorder.
Allen Doederlein, executive director at the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance, thinks in-school screening could be a way to detect and tackle depression issues before adulthood.
“It would be very difficult to implement, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be [implemented],” he said.
An estimated 8 percent of youth have a major depressive episode at some point in their adolescence and 20 percent of teens experience depression, according to Andriukaitis’ association.
Bipolar disorder, although uncommon in children and adolescence, has reportedly affected children as young as 6 and an estimated 7 percent of all children have been treated for symptoms of the disorder, said the National Association of Mental Illness.
When Carolyn Sperry’s son Leo was 2, she felt something wasn’t right with him. He didn’t care about things other children his age got excited about, like Easter egg hunting.
“These other kids were really excited about Easter eggs and the prizes inside. My son couldn’t care less about hunting for Easter eggs or hunting baskets,” Sperry said.
A few months shy of his third birthday, Leo got an evaluation. Within the past year, Leo has gotten four more evaluations. The last one indicated that Sperry’s son is one of the two to six per 1,000 children that will be diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder this year, a form of the disorder that can never be outgrown.
Sperry said someone told her, “if the mom thinks there’s something wrong, [there] almost always is.”
Although autism is not the same as a mental illness, people diagnosed with autism can mimic symptoms of a mental illness and can also develop a mental illness just like any other person.
The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said children can show signs of having autism by 3.
Andriukaitis said children should have routine mental health screenings just like yearly physicals where their eyes, ears and hearts are examined.
“It’s got to be periodic screening,” said Andriukaitis. “You don’t go for a mammogram once and then they say to you, oh you’re guaranteed, you’re never to get breast cancer.”
Carolyn Sperry attests that getting ongoing evaluations and screenings is beneficial.
“This was the fifth developmental evaluation, and autism didn’t come up until the fourth evaluation for our son,” she said.
Andriukaitis said since physicians sometimes come into schools to do routine check-ups, the schools should have doctors do the same for mental health.