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When to talk to your child’s doctor about mental health

When your child has a sore throat or fever, you often get an inkling when it's time to call the doctor.

But what do you do when your child exhibits emotional symptoms—like a negative mood that doesn't go away or trouble with sleep?

It's important to address these matters head on—20 percent of children have a diagnosable mental illness at some point, and too often it goes undiagnosed and untreated. We have to think of emotional symptoms as just as important as physical symptoms— wellness in both areas create the building blocks for your child's success.

If you do have a concern, bringing it up with your child's primary care doctor is a great place to start—either at a well visit or by scheduling an additional appointment.

And it's good to remember that inquiring about an emotional concern doesn't necessarily mean it's serious. Many kids who need help see a psychologist or other mental health professional episodically to work on skills to help them get through a particular emotional issue or rough patch.

What kinds of behaviors merit bringing up with a doctor?

  • changes in eating or sleeping
  • differences in mood or affect—your child seeming sad, angry or less happy
  • lack of interest in participating in typical activities in and out of school
  • missing a lot of school
  • disinterest in other kids or connecting with peers
  • any changes that teachers, or other caregivers or parents might report
  • reverting to behaviors more typical for younger kids, such as bed-wetting, for a prolonged period
  • if there are changes happening for your family, like a death, divorce, a move, a school change or other life stressors that your child is having trouble with or is having strong reactions to over an extended period of time
  • ongoing or recurring medical symptoms like headaches or stomachaches
  • any concerns about self harm, substance use or abuse, or any symptoms that you regard as alarming should be immediately brought to the attention of your child's primary care physician or a mental health professional.

Also, it's important to note that this isn't an exhaustive list. If you have a sense that your child is struggling emotionally or with certain behaviors that concern you, it's always OK to ask your child's doctor about it.

Primary care physicians can serve as a guide to you. They can help you figure out what next steps may be helpful, and if it makes sense to refer your child on for mental health services, like visiting with a psychologist. Here at Allina Health our mental health professionals work to partner with primary care physicians to offer integrated medical and mental health services.

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