The mental health of children, particularly adolescents, is in the news repeatedly and the increased incidence is alarming. It is particularly alarming as there are simply not enough mental health professionals to care for them.
One of the more common types of mental illness is an anxiety disorder. Most people have felt anxiety. Anxiety is another word for feeling worried or scared. It is normal for children and teens to feel anxious before a big test, talking to a group or competing in a sports event. For most people these feelings go away by themselves. An anxiety disorder is different and gets in the way of normal childhood activities such as sleeping alone, playing outside or going to school.
Recognizing that a child may have symptoms of anxiety could be the following: significant worries about things before they happen, constant worries or concerns about family, school, friends or activities. Fears of embarrassment or making mistakes may contribute to low self-esteem.
Although sports and physical activity have tremendous mental health benefits, young athletes are not exempt from the ongoing mental health crisis. In healthychildren.org Dr. Drew Watson says that some aspects of being a competitive athlete such as perfectionism, external pressure to perform or severe injuries may increase the risk of mental illness.
Exercise significantly improves mental health yet studies have shown that high school athletes’ anxiety level have increased over the last decade. Athletes seem to experience mental health problems more frequently than many people recognize. These mental health problems are often a result of stress. Tavish Ward et all in the journal Health Psychology Research found that stress doesn’t only affect college and professional athletes it is steadily increasing among high school athletes. They state that a limited amount of stress can be helpful and improve performance but when the athlete feels excessive stress it can be a trigger for anxiety and depression. Unfortunately they found that only 10% of college athletes tried to get help for their mental health problems because they were unsure where to go, there was nowhere to go and/or they feared judgement from others.
Anxiety disorders do run in families and the genes that help regulate the neurotransmitters in the brain are being identified and their function understood. The human brain is thought to have hundreds of neurotransmitters and chemical imbalance theories suggest that a person can become more susceptible to developing an anxiety disorder if they are not balanced. Recognized treatment is both therapy and medication.
Parents are very important in the care of their children’s mental health. It is important that parents assure their child that they can tell them anything without judgement or criticism. This is one of those things that is easy to say and not so easy to do. Second communicate that mental health is HEALTH and it is normal to talk about it and to seek professional help just like you would for strep throat. Many famous people have publicly done so.
By Sally Robinson, MD
Keeping Kids Healthy
University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB)
Published August 2023