Children and adolescents are thinking and feeling beings with a degree of mental health complexity that is only now being recognized. While is has long been accepted that physical health can be affected by traumas, genetic disturbances, toxins and illness, it has only recently been understood that these same stressors can affect mental health, and have long-lasting repercussions. While risk factors and vulnerabilities outweigh or overcome factors that are protective or that increases resilience, mental disorder can result. Child and adolescent mental disorders manifest themselves in many domains and in different ways. It is now understood that mental disturbances at a young age can lead to continuing impairment in adult life.
The intent of this report addresses mental health in the prenatal period (conception to birth, childhood (birth to 9 years), and adolescence (10 to 19 years). It adopts a broad definition of child and adolescent mental health:
Child and adolescent mental health is the capacity to achieve and maintain optimal psychological functioning and well being. It is directly related to the level reached and competence achieved in psychological and social functioning.
Child and adolescent mental health includes a sense of identity and self-worth; sound family and peer relationships; an ability to be productive and to learn; and a capacity to use developmental challenges and cultural resources to maximize development (Dawes et al, 1997). Good mental health in childhood is a prerequisite for optimal psychological development; productive social relationships; effective learning; an ability to care for self; good physical health; and effective economic participation as adults.
Iroquois Mental Health Center (IMHC) promotes the mental health of all children and adolescents, whether or not they are suffering from mental health problems. This can be done by reducing the impact of risk factors on the one hand, and by enhancing the effects of protective factors on the other.
However, a proportion of children and adolescents suffer from overt mental health disorders. A mental illness or disorder is diagnosed when a pattern of signs and symptoms is identified, that is associated with impairment of psychological and social functioning, and that meets criteria for disorder under an accepted system of classification in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual IV ( DSM-IV, American Psychiatric Association). Examples include: mood disorders, stress-related and somatoform disorders, and mental and behavioral disorders due to psychoactive substance use. Community based studies have revealed an overall prevalence rate for such disorders of about 20% in several national and cultural contexts (Bird, 1996; Verhulst, 1995).