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Mental Illnesses in Children and Youth

Kids and teens are constantly changing. They grow up quickly and before you know it, your giggly, energetic toddler is a teenager who sleeps until noon. As we grow, it’s normal to change as we learn new things and our bodies transform into our adult selves. But with all these changes going on, how can we tell which changes are normal? At what point should we start worrying that our child’s tantrums or teenager’s mood swings are more than just “growing pains?” It can be hard to tell. The truth is, for many kids, these sudden changes aren’t just a part of growing up—they’re symptoms of a mental illness.

On this page:

What is it?

Mental illnesses are surprisingly common in children and youth. About one in seven young people in BC—or 14%—will experience a mental illness at some point. Many mental illnesses—between 50% and about 70%—show up before the age of 18, so they can have a huge impact on a child’s development. Mental illnesses can affect how well kids do in school and how they form relationships with other kids and adults. Mental illnesses, if not treated early, can be disruptive enough to a kid’s normal development that it can affect them for the rest of their lives. Below are some common mental illnesses that affect children and teens:


Who does it affect?

Just as with adults, mental illnesses can affect kids and teens from all family types and cultural backgrounds. Kids and teens in certain situations, though, can be at higher risk for mental illnesses and may also face additional barriers to getting help. Some of these situations include:


Could my child have a mental illness?

It can be hard to tell the difference between normal changes as a child grows, and the symptoms of mental illness. Has your child:

If your child is showing one or more of these changes, and it’s impacting their daily life, the best thing to do is talk to them about how they’re feeling and then talk to your family doctor to rule out other explanations. Then, it’s important to connect to other supports in the school and community. Keep in mind that all talk of suicide must be taken seriously.


What can I do about it?

Unfortunately, only one in four kids and teens in Canada who need mental health treatment can get it. There are many reasons for this. Parents and caregivers can have mixed feelings about getting their children help for their mental illness. They may worry about being blamed for their child’s change in behaviour, or they worry about what treatments may be tried. Mental illnesses can be frightening, and many people worry what others will think if they talk about their experiences. The good news is that mental illnesses can be treated successfully, and early treatment can help reduce the impact of a mental illness on your child’s life. The kind of treatment that works best for your child will depend on your child’s needs. Talk to your doctor to learn more about the different options.


There many different types of medications that are being prescribed to kids including medications for mood, for anxiety, for psychosis, and for ADHD. If you aren’t comfortable with your child taking medications, then express your concerns to your doctor. They can explain which medications, if any, would be right for your child and go over the benefits and risks of medications with you. For young people, medications are usually not the first type of treatment considered. If they’re suggested, they are usually meant to work in connection with other treatments or supports.

Support groups:


Where do I go from here?

Many parents and care providers want to get help for a young person with mental health problems, but don’t know how or where to do it. Navigating the range of services in BC for child and youth mental health—including support from your child’s school, family doctor, and Ministry of Children and Family Development child and youth mental health team—can be difficult. Resources to help you find help, available in English only, are

FORCE Society for Kids’ Mental Health or call 1-855-887-8004 (toll-free in BC) or 604-878-3400 (in the Lower Mainland) for information and resources that support parents of a young person with mental illness.

Kelty Mental Health
Contact Kelty Mental Health at or 1-800-665-1822 (toll-free in BC) or 604-875-2084 (in Greater Vancouver) for information, referrals and support for children, youth and their families in all areas of mental health and addictions.

BC Partners for Mental Health and Addictions Information
Visit for info sheets on child and youth mental health problems and helpful tip sheets on finding help and what to expect when you do find help for your child. Some of these sheets are also available in Chinese and Punjabi. Also see our Family Toolkit it’s full of information, tips and self-tests to help you support a family member with a mental illness. It includes a special section on supporting a young person.

Visit or call 604-525-7566 for information, tools, and community resources on anxiety. You’ll find resources for parents of children who experience anxiety problems, including video, information, strategies to try at home, and tips for talking about anxiety with children. You’ll also find AnxietyBC Youth, a site for young people. For AnxietyBC Youth, visit

Youth in BC
Visit for youth resources and support. They are trained to help with crisis situations like suicide and other difficult situations. Call 1-866-661-3311 (toll-free in BC) or 604-872-3311 (in the Lower Mainland) 24 hours a day to talk by phone, or chat online at between noon and 1.00 am Pacific Time.

Children’s Health Policy Centre
A research group at Simon Fraser University that works to improve children’s well-being and give everyone in BC equal access to health services. Their Children’s Mental Health Research Quarterly looks at best and emerging practices, evidence-based research, policies, strategies, and services that support mentally healthy children and youth. For more, visit

Resources available in many languages:
*For each service below, if English is not your first language, say the name of your preferred language in English to be connected to an interpreter. More than 100 languages are available.

HealthLink BC
Call 811 or visit to access free, non-emergency health information for anyone in your family, including mental health information. Through 811, you can also speak to a registered nurse about symptoms you’re worried about, or talk with a pharmacist about medication questions.

Crisis lines aren’t only for people in crisis. You can call for information on local services or if you just need someone to talk to. If you are in distress, call 310-6789 (do not add 604, 778 or 250 before the number) 24 hours a day to connect to a BC crisis line, without a wait or busy signal. The crisis lines linked in through 310-6789 have received advanced training in mental health issues and services by members of the BC Partners for Mental Health and Addictions Information.

© 2014

This info sheet was prepared by CMHA BC Division on behalf of the BC Partners for Mental Health and Addictions Information and HeretoHelp. Funding was provided by BC Mental Health and Substance Use Services, an agency of the Provincial Health Services Authority. For more resources visit

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