Mental Illness in Toddlers and Early Childhood

mother with daughter in hospitalMental illnesses are medical conditions that hinder a person’s ability to perform common tasks, disrupting day-to-day activities. They affect the way a person thinks, feels, and relates to others and reality.

A little girl called Jani Schofield was the youngest child ever to be diagnosed with the most severe case of schizophrenia. Her parents suspected that her behavior was unusual from the beginning of her life. As an infant, she slept very little, thrived off intense stimulation, and cried incessantly without that stimulation. She grew into being a rather eccentric and intelligent toddler, developed several imaginary friends, and eventually became violent towards herself and others. Her parents took her to several doctors who provided them with incorrect diagnoses and parenting tips on discipline, as well as prescription medications with horrible side effects and little insight into their daughter’s condition. With little help from their insurance company and mental health care facilities, they began to feel hopeless in trying to find help for their little girl. They also found out that their doctors weren’t even communicating with each other about Jani’s case. Finally, after an episode of psychosis at school, they had the opportunity to take her to the Resnick Neuropsychiatric Hospital at UCLA. Her father notes that UCLA “ate” thousands of dollars trying to diagnose Jani, rather than turning them away because of the lack of insurance coverage. The staff at UCLA actually spent time monitoring her, running tests, and using every resource available. After three months of care at UCLA, they finally diagnosed her with onset childhood schizophrenia.

If Jani’s case was this severe, with symptoms so profound, why did it take so long for her parents to find doctors that would actually take the time to help? Can you imagine the number of babies and toddlers who might be suffering from mental illnesses, whose signs and symptoms aren’t as intense? What happens to them?

The U.S. Surgeon General, Dr. Satcher, pointed out that the federal government holds children‘s physical health in great importance, but lacks thoughtfulness toward their mental wellbeing. At the Surgeon General’s Conference on Children’s Mental Health in September 2000, Dr. Satcher, put into place a movement to reform childhood mental health and said, “Mental health is a critical component of children’s learning and general health. Fostering the social and emotional health in children as a part of healthy child development must therefore be a national priority. Both the promotion of mental health in children and the treatment of mental disorders should be major public health goals.”

The American Psychological Association published an article in February 2011. It emphasizes that, contrary to popular belief, babies and toddlers can suffer from mental illness. The sad part is they are rarely ever diagnosed with it until later on in their lives. Researchers Joy D. Osofsky and Alicia F. Lieberman say our biggest problem is the lack of health care for young children, from birth to five years old, because of the “pervasive, but mistaken, impression that young children do not develop mental health problems and are immune to the effects of early adversity and emotional difficulties.”

Ed Tronick, PhD, of the University of Massachusetts, and Marjorie Beeghly, PhD, of Wayne State University, explain that children and infants have a mental life, and that even the youngest can react to the intentions and emotions of those around them.

It is thought that young children sense what’s going on because they have their own basic intentions, motivations, and emotions. They’re also capable of applying meanings to themselves, things, people, and their world, based on their feelings about their environment.

While some mental illnesses are less common than others, these are some that have been known to ail children:

  • Anxiety disorders
  • Behavior disorders
  • Developmental disorders
  • Eating disorders
  • Elimination disorders
  • Mood disorders
  • Tic disorders

Each of these disorders affects adults too, but the symptoms, signs, and behaviors associated with them are different in children.

If you have concerns about your child having mental health issues, here are some general symptoms to be aware of:

  • Prenatal effects of drugs and alcohol (usage effects brain development in the fetus)
  • Inability to cope with daily problems and activities
  • Changes in eating and sleeping habits
  • Violence and anger
  • Long-lasting negative moods
  • Thoughts of death
  • Lost interest in favorite activities and friends
  • Hearing voices or hallucinations
  • Night terrors
  • Excessive worry

Keep in mind that symptoms in the mentally ill are recurring or long-lasting. They are not to be confused with sad days or the occasional temper tantrum.

Prenatal drug and alcohol exposure and other factors, like biological, genetic, relational, experiential, or social environmental risks, have effects on the brain that could lead to mental illness. It is so important that early detection of mental illness takes place as soon as possible. Even though it can’t be cured, early management can prevent further damage to a developing brain.

It is difficult for parents to find a quality mental health care provider for their very young child, because finding doctors who will properly treat a very young child is difficult. ZERO TO THREE, a nonprofit organization created to better the lives of babies and toddlers, said another difficulty is that some insurance companies have no mental health care coverage for children under the age of three. If you suspect your infant or toddler has a mental health issue, talking, asking questions, researching, and working with organizations that offer education and support for children’s mental health care, like ZERO TO THREE, are the best things you can do.

What do you think?

Mental Illness in Toddlers and Early Childhood

Tell us what you think!


  1. Profile photo of Heatherly Heatherly says:

    Oh, the GAPS book is written by Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride.

  2. Profile photo of Heatherly Heatherly says:

    I am reading a book from Europe called "Gut and Pschology Syndrome." It actually proves that mental health issues like in the article can be cured. Schizophrenia, bi-polar, etc. all relate to bad gut issues. No patient with these problems and more (autism, eczema, allergies, etc.) has good gut flora. I am astounded by what I’m reading! Look it up!


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