Growing Up with Mental Illness: What Kids Wish You Knew

Published On: April 29th, 2024

22% of American children and teens live with at least one mental illness. With 50% of all mental illnesses emerging before age 14, and 75% by age 24, many kids spend their formative years coping with these conditions. To make matters worse, half of them do not receive the treatment they need from a mental health professional.

Whether a youth is being treated for their symptoms or not, having a consistent source of social support and connectedness is vital for improving their situation. Unfortunately, harmful and untrue beliefs known as “stigma” work directly against these supports. Below are just a few of the negative effects that stigma has on people who live with mental illness:

  • Less hope that their situation will ever improve
  • Lower self-esteem and higher self-hatred
  • Worsening psychiatric symptoms
  • Difficulties making and maintaining social relationships
  • Fewer opportunities for work, academic, and housing opportunities
  • Reluctance to seek help or treatment
  • Decreased likelihood of sticking with mental health treatment
  • Social isolation and a lack of understanding from the people in their life
  • Bullying, physical violence, and harassment

In honor of Mental Health Awareness Month this May, VMAP wants to support those working to counter this stigma. Here’s what people who grew up with mental illness – and experienced the harmful effects of stigma firsthand – wish those around them had known.

What Kids Wish Their Parents Knew

According to a 2023 survey, 40% of American parents worry their children will develop a mental illness. This concern was at the very top of the list, distantly trailed by fears of bullying, kidnapping, drug and alcohol use, and teen pregnancy. Much of this fear surrounding mental illness is driven by the stigma that these individuals can’t be successful or find stability, which is far from the truth.

For all the worried parents out there, here’s what children wish they knew about life with mental illness:

  • I’m not behaving this way on purpose.
  • Your support means so much to me.
  • My mental illness doesn’t make you a bad parent.
  • You don’t always have to have the answer – I just need you to listen.
  • I just want to be loved the way I am.

What Kids Wish Their Friends Knew

Older children and teens are more likely to turn to their friends, rather than their parents, trained professionals, or other adults when mental health symptoms arise. Unfortunately, lingering stigma about mental illness can leave these friends feeling too unsure or uncomfortable to help.

Here is what teens living with mental illness wish their friends could understand!

  • Mental illness is not a disease, or something that makes me “less than.”
  • Thank you for being patient with me when I don’t feel well.
  • Your support means everything to me.
  • It’s okay to say something if you’re worried about me.
  • It can be hard to let you be here for me, but it means so much.

What Kids Wish Their Teachers Knew

Getting through school isn’t easy, and it’s even harder when you live with a mental illness. Teens who have depression are twice as likely to drop out of high school than their peers who don’t. With 20% of teens between 12 and 17 in the United States experiencing depression, support from their teachers and school staff can make a huge difference.

Here are some of the things they wish their teachers knew.

  • Putting more pressure on me won’t make me do better.
  • Being a kid isn’t as easy as it sounds.
  • I’m trying so hard to do my best.
  • I’m not “lazy” or “dumb” – some things are just harder for me.
  • My stresses and worries are important, too.

What Patients Wish Their Pediatricians Knew

Many patients experiencing symptoms of mental illness see their primary care providers (PCPs) first. For children and teens, this is usually their pediatrician, but they are not always prepared to help. In fact, over 65% of pediatricians say they lack necessary training, knowledge, and skills in pediatric mental health.

Here are some of the things these children and teens wish their pediatricians would understand.

  • My mental health is as important as my physical health.
  • I want you to be honest with me.
  • I don’t always know how to advocate for myself.
  • It can be hard for me to talk with my parents around.
  • Talk to me, too – not just my parents.

Supporting Children and Teens with Mental Health Struggles

Living with a mental illness can be lonely and challenging, and being there for someone who is struggling can make all the difference. Unfortunately, unless a young person confides in you directly, it is often difficult to tell if they need support. Stigma often leads those with mental illness to feel hesitant to share about what’s going on, for fear of judgement and discrimination. The best thing you can do is to be aware of any warning signs that might indicate a mental health issue and offer understanding and support when they appear. Here are some warning signs you might see in children and teens, before versus after the age of 12.

Warning Signs in Children Under 12

  • Higher energy than their peers; they may have trouble focusing or staying still, except when they’re occupied with screens
  • Changes in their typical sleep patterns, or increases in nightmares
  • An increase in tantrums and outbursts
  • Complaints of headaches, tummy troubles, or other physical symptoms that don’t seem to have a medical cause
  • Difficulty (or lack of interest in) making friends
  • Issues at school, including academic or behavioral challenges
  • Obsessive behaviors or fixations on their worries and fears

Warning Signs in Children Over 12

  • Decreased interest in things they used to enjoy, like hobbies and friendships
  • Changes in their typical sleep patterns, or increases in nightmares
  • Isolation from family and friends; more interest in being alone
  • Fixation on eating, dieting, exercising, or losing weight
  • Signs that they are harming themselves; talk of suicidal thoughts, even in passive or joking ways
  • Risky behaviors, including drinking alcohol, driving recklessly, or using illicit drugs
  • Mood swings and outbursts with higher highs and lower lows than usual

When it comes to supporting someone who is struggling with mental health issues, the best way to help depends on what role you play in their life.

Please note: if you or someone you know is ever facing a life-threatening mental health crisis, don’t hesitate to call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 9-8-8, or text Crisis Text Line at 741-741 for support.

Crisis Text Line is also available to support those experiencing non-life-threatening mental health crises.