Newtown, Parkland, and Columbine have become household names. The rate of school shootings is on the rise, averaging nearly 1.3 incidents per week in the United States. The perpetrators of violence are typically adolescents, the majority are merely 17-years-young.

Suicide is now the second leading cause of death among youth, ages 10 to 24, which swallows up more lives than cancer, AIDS, birth defects, and other major illnesses combined. Among youth who have attempted suicide, four in five have demonstrated clear warning signs of wanting to take their own lives.

These statistics are alarming to mental health professionals and terrifying to parents, especially those who struggle with their children’s mental illnesses. While not all cases of childhood mental illness pose such an incredible risk to life, most create chaos and instability in their homes. Children are left to struggle in school and relationships, while siblings, parents, and other support roles are left picking up the pieces of shattered emotions and hopes for a better situation.

Why we stay silent

Along with mental illness comes stigma. Often, symptoms of childhood mental illness are seen as the parents’ fault — something they did or didn’t do, to prevent such behaviors. Outbursts, strange behavior, even violence can be diminished through culturally accepted norms, such as, “boys will be boys,” or “all siblings fight.” The belief is that children will grow out of their behavior with a gentle (or not-so-gentle) nudge in the right direction. But this belief can be damaging and lead to caregivers’ remaining silent about this critical issue.

The cost of not talking about childhood mental illness can permeate every facet of society. Family members may struggle at work and school. They may be less likely to become involved in other community functions. Their own stress levels and hopelessness may lead to personal bouts of depression and anxiety. Many don’t know how to address these issues, and they don’t know who to turn to.

How to shine a light on childhood mental illness

Childhood mental illness is more prevalent than we may be aware of. Nearly one in five children will struggle with mental illness and its effects. For children, mental illness can affect the way they play, learn, and develop. If left untreated, these issues can lead to serious implications throughout their lifetime. Mental illness can impact physical health, academic performance, and ability to work as an adult.

The most important steps a parent can take is to identify the signs of mental illness. The best method to do this is to pay attention to children’s developmental milestones, especially within the first five years of life. The onset of adolescence can lead to further complications with mental health, as preteens and teens are subjected to more risk factors, like social pressures, drug use, and academic stressors.

Culturally, mental health advocates promote more support for family members who may be privately grappling with such difficult circumstances. Many corporate businesses are taking responsibility for supporting their employees, ensuring an open and encouraging environment to shed light on mental illness. Gale King, executive vice president and chief administrative officer at Nationwide, has worked to create an environment that provides educational materials to their employees while supporting their openly expressing their stress.

Further, parents of children with mental illnesses are encouraging others to speak out about their difficulties, which can lead to more support for themselves and their children. Lisa Lambert, the director for Parent/Professional Advocacy League (PPAL) has started a blog that provides information and first-hand testimonials of parents. The purpose of this blog is so that struggling parents know they are not alone.  

With opening the channels of communication and sharing resources, parents may learn how to better shine a light on childhood mental illness. In turn, they can provide more support for their children and work to diminish the stigma and symptoms of isolation and fear.