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Mood disorders in children and teens have been recognized for decades – though they can sometimes be difficult to pinpoint. This is especially true in young children or others who may have difficulty describing how they feel.

Generally caused by chemical imbalances in the brain, mood disorders also may be triggered by environmental factors, as in the case of seasonal affective disorder. Students with mood disorders often are either depressed, manic, or alternating between the two.

A Tough Diagnosis

Often, mood disorders go undiagnosed because their symptoms can mimic the normal emotional and behavior patterns associated with growing up. This is particularly true in adolescence, when hormonal changes, peer pressure and rapid physical and cognitive development occur. But left untreated, mood disorders can lead to serious academic and lifestyle problems including school failure, extreme irritability, substance abuse, risky or self-injurious behavior, or even suicide.

Recognize the Signs

It’s normal for everyone – including children and teens – to occasionally feel sad or depressed as the result of upsetting events. With the right love and support, these feelings generally resolve themselves. Symptoms of mood disorders occur or reoccur over an extended period of time and interfere with normal activities and relationships.

Look for these symptoms:

  • In preschoolers: A somber, almost ill appearance; frequent complaints of physical ailments for which no medical basis can be found; lack of enthusiasm or tearfulness for no justifiable reason; spontaneous and unexplained irritability; frequent negative self-statements; self-destructive behavior, or anhedonia.
  • In elementary, middle and high school students: Disruptive behavior; academic difficulty or declining school performance; frequent peer problems; increased irritability or aggression; suicidal threats; anhedonia; statements that they hate themselves and everything around them; excessive sleep; rapid, unpredictable emotional swings; racing thoughts; increased interest in problematic activities such as overspending or drug use; grandiosity and inflated self-esteem; greatly increased or decreased sex drive, or uncharacteristically poor judgment.

Mood Disorders are Treatable

The good news is: Mood disorders are treatable. You can help your affected students by knowing the signs of mood disorders and where and how to get appropriate care.

  • Schools that provide prevention and early intervention-focused services are better equipped to help students with mood disorders. This should include educational programs for students, parents and staff, as well as collaboration with community agencies for referral and follow-up purposes.

Specific treatment should be recommended, after thorough evaluation by child mental health specialists. This treatment should be based on:

  • A student’s age, overall health and medical history.
  • The extent and severity of the condition.
  • The specific type of disorder.
  • The students’ and parents’ tolerance for specific medications, procedures and therapists.
  • The prognosis or expectation for the course of the condition.
  • The opinions and preferences of parents and students, in collaboration with mental health professionals.

Treatment for mood disorders may include medications, psychotherapy or family therapy. Regardless of the specific treatment plan, communication between home and school is critical. Counseling, community referral information and collaborative support must be ongoing. Working together, an involved team of adults can help ensure the ongoing mental health and well-being of every student.

Resources

For more information on mood disorders in children and teens, resources include the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance and the National Association of School Psychologists.

Cobb Pediatric Therapy offers additional resources in this and other areas to enhance your school psychology practice and career. Contact us today to learn more.

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