top of page

Back to School Blues: A Guide to Mental Illness in Children

As summer winds down and we welcome September, the change in the air is palpable - and not just the temperature. The change we're talking about is, of course, a new school year. Whether your kids have entered school for the first time, returned for another year or started a new school, this change can be a mixed bag of emotions - excitement, hope, nerves. While stress is a natural part of life, the line between back-to-school jitters versus, say, anxiety, can sometimes be difficult to detect. It is, after all, estimated that 20% of children in Ontario struggle with a mental health problem. That's a lot. And of this 20%, a whopping 80% of these kids do not receive the necessary treatment.

So, as part of Summerhill Club's ongoing mission to help families live better, we have expanded our breadth of services to now include mental health therapy. Recently graduating from the University of Toronto with a Masters in Social Work, longtime Summerhill Club childcare provider, Carolyn O'Connor, will be making her private practice as a clinical mental health therapist available to our clientele. With a child development lens, Carolyn is committed to helping children and families live their best life. To help you navigate the changes that a new school year brings, Carolyn has compiled a list of warning signs and tools that might help detect an underlying condition in your child.

Know the Warning Signs

While the presence of any of the following signs is not necessarily indicative of a mental health disorder, they can help determine if your child's behaviour warrants further investigation.

  • Changes in mood: intense feelings (e.g. sadness, withdrawal, fear) that last at least two weeks

  • Extreme mood swings: with little/no provocation that cause problems in relationships with others

  • Changes in behaviour: uncharacteristic and sudden changes in behaviour or personality

  • Dangerous or violent behaviour: frequent fighting and a propensity to use violence or weapons; expressing habitual anger towards others

  • Difficulty concentrating/focusing on a task; distracted easily

  • Unexplained changes to weight; loss of appetite, frequent vomiting, or overeating

  • Loss of pleasure or interest in activities enjoyed in the past

  • Physiological complaints (e.g. headaches, stomach pain, heart racing, difficulty breathing)

  • Persistent irritability

  • Dramatic increase or decrease in sleep; fatigue or low energy

  • Extreme and unwarranted feelings of guilt

  • Stress or worry that interferes with functioning on a regular basis

  • Feels uncomfortable around others

  • Engages in ritualistic or repetitive behaviour

  • Frequent nightmares or distressing memories

Be Proactive

If you are concerned with your child's behaviour, there are a number of proactive steps you can take to ensure they are receiving the support they need.

Prioritize Mental Health

Emphasize the importance of mental health at the same level as physical health in your household. Recognize it as an essential pillar of holistic wellness. Your kids will likely pick up on this ideology and adopt it for themselves.

Talk to your Child

Although they may not be ready to talk as soon as you broach the subject, letting your children know that you are open and available for conversations about mental health will help to ensure that stigma and shame will not silence them. Kids need to hear from their parents that they are loved and supported unconditionally, and that a mental health concern will be taken seriously. Research has recognized parental support as a major factor in fostering resilience among children. If your child discloses mental health issues, believe them and take appropriate action.

Communicate with Teachers or Childcare Providers

If you suspect that your child is struggling with a mental illness, talk to their teacher. It is likely that your child’s teacher spends more waking hours with your child than you do, and they see them in a structured environment amongst other children. Therefore, they will have a perspective that is different from yours and may be able to shed some light on your child’s daily behaviour and functioning. A teacher’s position offers them the opportunity to observe and compare behaviour across several same-age peers in a social and academic setting. These open lines of communication and sharing of mutual concerns can lead to increased surveillance and detection of a mental health issue.

Talk to your Doctor

In an ideal world, all health professionals would be mandated to screen for mental health issues as standard protocol during annual physical health assessments. Unfortunately, the onus of identification is on the parents and other adults in children’s lives. If you begin to suspect that your child is displaying symptoms of a mental health issue, keep track (in writing, if necessary) of the concerning behaviours and when they typically occur, the frequency (how often), and when you began to notice them. Bring this information to your next doctor or pediatrician appointment. For diagnosis and specialized treatment, your doctor may then refer you to a psychiatrist, psychologist, social worker, or behavioural therapist.

Don’t Use the “Wait & See” Approach

It may be tempting to put off treatment for your child until you are absolutely certain that there is a mental health condition to treat, but adopting the “wait and see” strategy can have lasting negative repercussions. Mental health symptoms can interfere with normal development and learning, producing a cumulative effect. Furthermore, crisis intervention and delayed treatment are more costly and challenging than prevention and early intervention.

Get Help for Yourself

Coping with your child’s mental health conditions can be stressful and scary. It may be helpful to speak with a mental health professional to address your needs and validate your fears in these unfamiliar circumstances. Therapy or counselling can assist you in coming to terms with a diagnosis and in turn, better support your child. Therapy can also provide important coping strategies, like stress management and mindfulness techniques, that will improve the way you interact with your child and respond to their challenging behaviours.

Additional Resources

For expert advice on strategies and information regarding specific behaviours, symptoms, or disorders, visit The ABCs of Mental Health - Resources for Parents, A free web-based resource regarding children and adolescents aged 3 to 18. The Resource is searchable by “worrisome behaviour” or by chapter.

Child Mind Institute Symptom Checker

You indicate the behaviours that are making you concerned about your child by answering a series of questions. The Symptom Checker analyzes your answers to give you a list of psychiatric or learning disorders that are associated with those symptoms.

Since individual symptoms can reflect more than one disorder, this tool will give you a range of

possibilities and guide you toward next steps. This tool cannot diagnose your child, but it can help you inform yourself about possible diagnoses and will offer information and articles to help you learn about them in order to facilitate a conversation with a professional.

About Carolyn

Carolyn has been a childcare provider with The Summerhill Club since moving to Toronto in January of 2014. As a graduate of the Child and Youth Studies program at Brock University, she was a great addition to our growing team of sitters and loved working with our families as she pursued her dream of becoming a mental health therapist.

This year, Carolyn graduated from the University of Toronto with a Masters in Social Work and began her private practice as a clinical mental health therapist. With a child development lens, coupled with experience treating women experiencing perinatal depression and anxiety, Carolyn is committed to helping children and families to live their best life.

bottom of page