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Detecting mental illness in children

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Mental illness occurs in about 20 percent of U.S. children during a given year, according to the U.S. Surgeon General. Further, nearly five million U.S. children have some type of serious mental illness, or one that significantly interferes with daily life, according to WebMD.

Children can suffer from the following mental illnesses:

* Anxiety disorders- Children respond to certain things or situations with fear and dread, as well as with physical signs of anxiety (nervousness), such as a rapid heartbeat and sweating.

* Disruptive behavior disorders-Children with these disorders tend to defy rules and often are disruptive in structured environments, such as school.

* Pervasive development disorders-Children with these disorders are confused in their thinking and generally have problems understanding the world around them.

* Eating disorders-Eating disorders involve intense emotions and attitudes, as well as unusual behaviors, associated with weight and/or food.

* Elimination disorders-These disorders affect behavior related to the elimination of body wastes.

* Learning and communication disorders-Children with these disorders have problems storing and processing information, as well as relating their thoughts and ideas.

* Affective (mood) disorders-These disorders involve persistent feelings of sadness and/or rapidly changing moods.

* Schizophrenia-This is a serious disorder that involves distorted perceptions and thoughts.

* Tic disorders-These disorders cause a person to perform repeated, sudden, involuntary and often meaningless movements and sounds, called tics.

* Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD): Children with ADHD generally have problems paying attention or concentrating, can't seem to follow directions, and are easily bored and/or frustrated with tasks. They also tend to move constantly and are impulsive (do not think before they act).

Symptoms vary depending on the type of mental illness, but some of the general symptoms include: Abuse of drugs and/or alcohol, changes in sleeping and/or eating habits, excessive complaints of physical ailments, defying authority, skipping school, stealing or damaging property; and changes in school performance, such as poor grades despite good efforts.

Researchers are looking at childhood development in terms of what is normal and abnormal, trying to understand how factors affecting development can have an impact on mental health. The goal is to try to predict, and ultimately, prevent, developmental problems that could lead to mental illness.

A key part of this research is the identification of risk factors -- factors that increase a child's chances of developing a mental disorder. In addition, the mental health community is calling for additional research on medications used to treat children with mental disorders.

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