Supporting Children’s Mental Health

Candace Gorham

On March 17th, Candace Gorham, a licensed mental health counselor and former ordained minister turned atheist activist, lead “Children and Mental Health: What Parents Should Know,” as part of the American Humanist Association’s Speaking of Humanism monthly series. The presentation discussed mental and behavioral health disorders common in childhood and adolescence, as well as common treatments and interventions. Gorham is also a researcher and writer on issues related to religion, secular social justice, and the African-American community. She is a member of the Black Humanist Alliance of AHA, The Secular Therapy Project, and The Clergy Project. Her talk reviewed signs to watch for, the impact of discipline and religion in the home, and the difference between a child with lagging skills versus a hardheaded manipulator.

Children’s development and mental health are complex subjects that deserve more attention. We received many insightful questions during our event that we didn’t have time to address so we followed up with Candace Gorham afterward to learn more. Here are her responses:

Q: How do I talk to my family about my child’s (potential) mental illness and gain their support when they are religious or don’t value mental health?

First, I would provide educational materials to them on the diagnosis. When I was first diagnosed with depression, I gave my closest friends and family printed materials about the disorder and asked them to read them as a way to show that they supported me. They weren’t long complicated articles, but rather the basics or highlights. I did not assume that they would take the time to educate themselves or that my words would sink in. Second, I would emphasize to my family that I am trying to attend to my child’s needs using medical advice and research, as opposed to going off of what I believe was the right thing to do. Third, I would express to my family that I need their support in caring for my child, but I also need them to respect how I have chosen to raise my child. Finally, realize that you don’t have to tell your family any more than you are comfortable. Talk to your child’s doctor or therapist about alternative ways you can explain your child’s needs without using words like “mental illness” and “diagnosis” so that you are revealing only as much as you are comfortable.

Q: What are we seeing in children’s mental health regarding the COVID-19 pandemic and what should parents be looking for?

The COVID pandemic has resulted in a sharp rise in depression and anxiety in youth just like we have seen in adults. Parents should look for increased isolation, lack of interest in things that the child used to enjoy, persistent irritability, poor sleep, and even nightmares. Children may begin to have panic attacks that look like sudden tantrums, struggling to breathe, and intense crying spells. Psychosomatic symptoms, such as frequent headaches and stomachaches, are also common in stressed children. As children engage in online learning, it has been harder to distinguish ADHD-type symptoms from an understandable struggle to adjust to virtual schooling. However, extreme lack of focus—even outside of the educational context—significant disorganization, frequently losing things, and apparent daydreaming can be signs of depression and anxiety as well. Try to talk to your children about COVID specifically and their general mood. I do frequent check-ins with my daughter about her mood and any anxiety she may have. If you have a child who runs from these types of conversations, try striking it up in the car when they are a captive audience and can’t get away. Go into their bedrooms. Don’t be afraid to “invade their space” when it comes to things like this. I’m not suggesting that you rummage through their things or read their journals, but you must be persistent in getting to know your child by expressing your interest in their world and letting them know that you are going to parent them.

Q: What are approaches to children with suicidal ideation?

If a child is merely wondering what life would be like if they were never born, perhaps simple talk therapy or family therapy would help. If a person is thinking about death a lot, they may have gotten to a point where they would benefit from an antidepressant. The most severe cases, where they are making plans, engaging in self-harm, or enacting their plan, require significant medical intervention and may even require hospitalization. While hospitalization is a scary prospect for your child, it provides opportunities for doctors to try medicines and watch for side effects, children to experience interventions such as group, art, and family therapies, and social workers to link families to community resources.

Q: Do you have hope that children diagnosed with anxiety and/or depression will benefit from the easing of the pandemic in the coming months?

I do think that things will get better for many people as the pandemic ends or as people get vaccinated and can do more things. The pandemic has been nothing short of mass trauma. It is not uncommon for people who experience major traumas, such as natural disasters, to “bounce back” after the stressor has ended. For example, research on resiliency shows us that the vast majority of people who live through natural disasters experience an acute spike in mental health symptoms, such as depression and anxiety. However, within six-to-twelve months, those symptoms have largely subsided. Some people might benefit from medications to get through that tough time. Others might only need some psychotherapy. And still others might be able to make it with only the support of friends and family. But the less you can suffer throughout the process, the better your long-term recovery prospects will be. In other words, the more support you receive during the trauma, the more likely you are to come out on the other end with less long-term damage. If that means taking medication and seeing a therapist, then that should be an option on the table.

Q: What do you think about emphasis on the neuroplasticity of the brain, specifically the concept of taking special care of a child from infancy to five years old because that’s when the neuroplasticity is at its peak so whatever the child learns at this stage of life sticks?

The key about neuroplasticity is that the brain can and does change over time. Using plastic as an analogy for the brain suggests that the brain can be molded, shaped, and reshaped. So, the things that we learn at an early age do not necessarily stick with us for the rest of our lives. Neuroplasticity suggests that there is a certain amount of resiliency to the brain that allows it to recover from trauma or any delayed development it might have experienced. While it is true that certain things about our personality, IQ, etc. are set at an early age, oftentimes there are interventions that can be quite effective at helping a person overcome the symptoms of disorders that a child might be born with or develop at a young age. For example, interventions such as Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) are highly effective at working with children and adolescents with autism. It is vital that we provide good nutrition, intellectual stimulation, and healthy socialization for infants and toddlers. This absolutely impacts their long-term development. But the negative outcomes that result from lacking those things are, by no means, a given when proper interventions are put in place. That is the beauty of neuroplasticity.

To connect with Candace Gorham, tweet her at @EbonyExodus. For upcoming and previously recorded Speaking of Humanism events, visit the AHA Center for Education’s website.