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Experts concerned over rise of mental illness in children

Carla Bean, clinical psychologist at Child and Adolescent Services at the Mid Atlantic Wellness Institute (Photograph by Lisa Simpson)

Children are suffering an increase in severe mental health problems, a child psychologist has warned.

Carla Bean, of Child and Adolescent Services at the Mid Atlantic Wellness Institute, said she had seen an increase in youngsters who self-harmed or suffered with depression in the past six years.

She said: “It seems like the cases are more complex. We’re talking self-harm, psychosis, more levels of depression, anxiety and obsessive compulsive disorder.

“It’s just a lot more acuity, more psychiatric conditions that are more serious in nature, which I haven’t previously seen with this population — you may see more with adults.”

Dr Bean added the increase was likely down to a “combination of factors”.

She said: “I wish I knew why. I think social media has a lot to do with suicidal ideas because children are exposed to more through social media. Cyberbullying triggers a lot, whereas we didn’t see that before.”

Dr Bean was speaking as the island marked Child Mental Health Awareness Day. This year’s theme is hope after trauma.

She explained: “Trauma is any event where a person has witnessed or experienced serious harm and/or death.”

Dr Bean said the definition of trauma also includes a person’s response to that event.

She said US statistics showed that many children would experience some kind of trauma before the age of four.

Dr Bean added: “There are also statistics that show that half of teenagers that present to the emergency department have experienced some level of violence.

“A lot of that is cyberbullying, which is another form of trauma that people tend to overlook.”

She said: “I don’t know of any specific Bermuda statistics but I do know in my practice that children experience neglect.

“They experience sexual and physical abuse, there is violence — witnessing domestic violence.

“There is a lot with respect to looking at the gang population and involvement, witnessing shootings.

“A lot of the similar things we would see in other places in the world, we see here also in Bermuda.”

Dr Bean said CAS was seeing about 400 patients.

She added that bullying was often overlooked as a cause of trauma.

Dr Bean explained: “Research has shown that bullying can be directly linked to post-traumatic stress disorder.

“I’ve seen children here, particularly adolescents, who have been suicidal.

“Children are feeling like they want to take their lives because they don’t know what else they want to do, being exposed to this level of trauma, which is pretty serious.”

She said it was important for parents to know what their children were doing on social media.

She explained that research had shown that trauma could alter the structure of the brain, especially in younger children because their brains had still to develop.

Dr Bean added: “It can have really long-term and negative effects on children in particular when you are talking about trauma.”

Dr Bean explained that the effects of trauma differed depending on the development and age of the child.

She said in younger children, symptoms can include tantrums, avoidance of strangers or clingy behaviour.

Dr Bean added: “Adolescents who have been sexually abused may sexually act out. You may have alcohol and substance use.

“You may have self-harm gestures or ideation, such as cutting, or even suicidal ideas and gestures.

“It might also be reliving the experience through flashbacks, dreams, intrusive memories.”

Dr Bean said children may also avoid anything that reminds them of the event or isolate themselves.

She added that parental support was one of the “strongest predictors of positive outcomes for children and adolescents that have gone through trauma”.

Dr Bean said parents should reassure their children and help them express their emotions.

She added: “They should come and seek help when the symptoms are such that it is really affecting their functioning and parents feel that it is beyond their level of support.”

Dr Bean said cognitive behaviour therapy, which can have a trauma focus, was one of the best forms of treatment for children affected by trauma.

To mark Child Mental Health Awareness Day, Peter Yates, CAS psychiatrist, will talk about trauma on Hott 107.5 at 8.15am today.

Dr Yates will discuss causes of childhood trauma, treatment and what happens if trauma is not dealt with.

The CAS team will also host an in-house event for service users and their families later this month.

UPDATE: This article was amended to correct Carla Bean’s role to child psychologist. It initially stated she was a psychiatrist.