Melanie Dallas

The outbreaks of measles occurring in communities across the U.S. should not only be a reminder of how important vaccinations are, but that vaccination makes protecting children from many serious diseases relatively easy.

An even bigger benefit is that most vaccines protect children from those diseases for the rest of their lives.

A series of shots in early childhood that provides life-long immunity from potentially deadly diseases would seem to be a pretty good bargain.

Now imagine if there were a shot a child could receive as an infant that would provide life-long immunity from non-physical illnesses – depression, anxiety, eating disorders, bi-polar disorder and the like. I imagine most parents would want their children to have that shot.

Of course, while immunization remains an excellent and proven way to protect children from many physical illnesses, there is unfortunately no vaccine for mental illness. The good news, however, is that mental illness can be successfully treated and children with mental illness can recover.

Having a child with mental health problems can be frightening, but it is more common that many people realize. In fact, according to the National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI), up to one in five children (20 percent) ages 13 to 18 live with a mental health condition, with mood disorders, behavior disorders and anxiety being the most common. Half of all lifetime cases of mental illness begin by age 14.

But while the symptoms of a physical illness are often obvious – for example fever, rashes, aches and pains – the signs of mental illness in children can sometimes be harder to recognize. It may be easy to think a child or teenager who is moody, defiant or wants to spend hours alone in his or her room is just being a ‘normal teenager’ or ‘going through a phase.’ But actually he or she may be suffering from depression, anxiety or a behavioral disorder.

Even though there is no proven way to prevent mental illness in a child, psychologists have identified several protective factors that can reduce a child’s risk, including a strong support system of family and friends, physical safety, resilience and a low number of what are called adverse childhood events (experiences such as the deaths of loved ones, violence, homelessness and other types of traumatic events).

This doesn’t mean that a child with exposure to several adverse events or lacking a strong support system will necessarily develop mental illness at some point, or that a child with several protective factors won’t. What’s most important is being aware that any child can experience emotional, behavioral and mental health challenges – for any number of reasons – and ensuring children get the help they need.

The fact is, while there will likely never be a vaccine against mental illness, doctors and therapists understand more about childhood mental illness than ever before – how and when it starts, what can increase a child’s risk, and how it can be treated most effectively.

In addition, many mental health providers (including Highland Rivers Health) have doctors and therapists specializing in child and adolescent mental health that can tailor medication, therapy and support services to the unique needs and strengths of each young person. Just as vaccines provide long-term protection from serious physical illnesses, seeking support and therapy can provide protection from the potential long-term effects of mental illness.

If you are concerned about the mental health of your child or teen, talk to your child’s doctor or school counselor, or call a local mental health clinic. Most importantly, don’t wait. Like a physical illness, the sooner a child receives treatment for mental health problems, the sooner he or she will be able to recover and enjoy the special time of childhood.

Melanie Dallas is a licensed professional counselor and CEO of Highland Rivers Health, which provides treatment and recovery services for individuals with mental illness, substance use disorders, and intellectual and developmental disabilities in a 12-county region of northwest Georgia that includes Bartow, Cherokee, Floyd, Fannin, Gilmer, Gordon, Haralson, Murray, Paulding, Pickens, Polk and Whitfield counties.