Conventional wisdom suggests that young children’s psyches are robust enough to allow them to easily bounce back from childhood trauma. But even infants have sufficient awareness and emotional depth to experience mental illness, according to several papers published in American Psychologist, the journal of the American Psychological Association, and reported in Science Daily.

According to the researchers, mental disorders can be as painful and damaging to children as they are for adults. “Some infants may come to make meaning of themselves as helpless and hopeless, and they may become apathetic, depressed and withdrawn. Others seem to feel threatened by the world and may become hyper-vigilant and anxious,” said authors Ed Tronick, PhD, of the University of Massachusetts at Boston, and Marjorie Beeghly, PhD, of Wayne State University.

But it can be difficult for children with mental health problems to get help. Very few mental health practitioners are experienced in dealing with the very young. In addition, health insurance might not cover mental health issues for children younger than 3 years old.

What’s more, children  younger than 5 are much more likely than older children to experience abuse and neglect. And this emotional stress can have long-term effects on young children’s physical and mental health. But pediatricians and other child-care providers seldom recognize such problems or refer affected children to mental health providers. In addition, these problems are exacerbated among poor families.

“One in five children in poverty has a diagnosable mental health disorder,” said authors Joy D. Osofsky, PhD, of Louisiana State University, and Alicia F. Lieberman, PhD, of the University of California at San Francisco.

But there is hope. The papers’ authors offered a number of recommendations for improving the mental health care system to better protect and support young children:

  • Screen young children for mental health problems
  • Educate those who come into contact with young children-pediatricians, educators, welfare workers-to recognize risk factors for childhood mental illness
  • Incorporate mental health consultation for young children into child care services and early education
  • Incorporate mental health coverage for young children into public and private insurance programs

Click here to view the Sane Bookstore’s section on mental health self-help books for parents and families.