Children’s Hospital of Richmond at VCU recently partnered with the Virginia Treatment Center for Children to host “Unraveling the Mystery of Children’s Mental Health: From Brains to Behavior,” a presidential symposium which highlighted advances in science and research and focused on understanding pediatric mental health issues. The event drew over 230 professionals, including physical therapists, psychiatrists and even veterans, to discuss children’s mental health, including anxiety, depression, eating disorders and substance abuse. Bela Sood, M.D., medical director of the center and a nationally recognized expert on children and adolescents with mental health problems, says this goes a long way toward removing the stigma of mental health.“The more we talk about mental health as professionals, the more we show our communities that it’s okay to acknowledge these issues,” said Dr. Sood. “We have developed a stronger understanding in recent years of not just environmental causes of mental health issues, but the science of the brain. Children can be just as susceptible to these brain chemistry imbalances as adults.”It may surprise you to know that children as young as three can suffer from depression or anxiety. According to Dr. Sood, the traditional view of depression as a feeling of sadness or despondency in adults is not how clinical depression presents in children. A child with dysregulation of mood will whine and cry and develop behaviors like hitting and biting. The family may feel they walk on eggshells to prevent a blow up. Children with anxiety may develop headaches or stomachaches and refuse to go to school.A teen with clinical depression will appear more angry than sad. They may have poor concentration and see a drop in their grades at school. Parents may notice teens lose interest in activities they used to enjoy, and a lack of interest in being around other teens. While parents can watch for these indicators, it’s important to understand that no single symptom can result in a diagnosis.“It’s essential that parents tap into the expertise of mental health professionals,” said Dr. Sood. “Some tantrums and outbursts are normal. In order to make a diagnosis, you need to understand developmentally where a child should be, and experience in evaluating a variety of behavioral patterns.”What can parents do to help their children manage mental health issues? For environmental or stress-related causes, play therapy helps children communicate. When they have not developed a mastery of language, child psychologists and psychiatrists allow children to act out their anxieties through play. If a mental health issue is unrelated to environment, medication may be an effective form of treatment.“Ultimately, mental health issues are very treatable in children,” said Dr. Sood. “When mental health impacts a child or teen, it also impacts their development. Social interactions and education at school are an important part of growing up, and when a mental health issue presents, it can halt their progress. Through our clinical work, we want to help children get on the right track to become healthy, productive adults.”If you feel your child may have a mental health disorder talk to your physician or contact the Virginia Treatment Center for Children.