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Trauma and childhood mental health

Many children have experienced violence, neglect and stress. If this has happened repeatedly over time, they may have experienced cumulative harm or developmental trauma. It’s important to understand the child’s story and to consider how this might link to their mental health issues.

Remember that each child processes their experiences in their own way. Some may experience typical symptoms of trauma, but others may not. Make sure not to make assumptions that a child has or has not been ‘traumatised’. Watch for signs in their behaviour and learn more about trauma and mental health in young people

Common diagnoses for children known to child protection

Common diagnoses for children known to child protection are:

  • Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
  • Asperger’s or Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)
  • Attachment disorders
  • Anxiety and Depression
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Conduct and Oppositional Defiance Disorder (ODD)

Help prevent misdiagnosis, share information

Help the child get the treatment they need by providing as much information as possible to their mental health professional. It is important to include information related to children’s trauma history as sometimes children can be diagnosed with a disorder as symptoms, behavioural and emotional responses of a mental illness overlap with child trauma. Medical professionals need to have all the information about the trauma experiences of children to reduce misdiagnosis.

Observations about the child can reduce the likelihood of misdiagnosis and unnecessary prescription medications. Children experiencing poor mental health and high levels of distress need support but that may not necessarily be a diagnosable mental illness. Be aware of language that pathologises, stigmatises or labels a child’s behaviour or distress. Having a mental illness and then getting a diagnosis helps to get the right treatment at the right time. Getting a diagnosis for the purpose of getting access to services is not necessarily helpful.

Be open to other possibilities

Avoid using language that pathologises, stigmatises or labels a child. A diagnosis of a mental health problem can be useful in getting services and supports, but make sure that a child’s capacity, strengths and resources are also taken into account. Be open to the possibility that the child’s difficulties may not be a ‘diagnosable mental illness’, though they may be experiencing very poor mental health and high levels of distress. Perhaps their behaviours are more related to their relational context than their individual health.

Tip

Revisit the Dual Continuum of Mental Health and Mental Illness in the Overview section. 

When a young person does not have a clearly ‘diagnosable mental illness’, it does not mean they would not benefit from, or do not need the services provided via Queensland Health mental health services or emergency services.

If there are concerns a child may be showing signs of a mental health issue, start by looking for what their behaviour could be about.

Consider:

  • How can the child’s behaviour be understood best?
  • Is the child trying to hold onto some control or dignity when someone or something else is threatening to take it?
  • Could this behaviour be a response or to violence, oppression or marginalisation?

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