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Overview of Mental Health Disorders in Children

By Josephine Elia, MD, Professor of Psychiatry and Human Behavior, Professor of Pediatrics;Attending Physician, Sidney Kimmel Medical College of Thomas Jefferson University;Nemours/A.I. duPont Hospital for Children

Several important mental health disorders, such as depression (see Depression in Children and Adolescents) and eating disorders (see Eating Disorders), often start during childhood and adolescence. Some disorders, such as autism (see Autism Spectrum Disorders), start only during childhood.

With a few exceptions, symptoms of mental health disorders tend to be similar to feelings that every child experiences, such as sadness, anger, suspicion, excitement, withdrawal, and loneliness. The difference between a disorder and a normal feeling is the extent to which the feeling becomes so powerful as to overwhelm and interfere with the activities of normal life or cause the child to suffer. Thus, doctors must use a significant degree of judgment to determine when particular thoughts and emotions stop being a normal component of childhood experience and represent a disorder.

Disruptive behavioral disorders affect mainly behavior. The behavior is not intentionally disruptive but may disturb others, including teachers, peers, and family members. These disorders include

Autism spectrum disorders (see Autism Spectrum Disorders) affect both mental health and overall development in children. These disorders include

Autism spectrum disorders may involve some combination of impaired social relationships, a restricted range of interests, abnormal language development and use, and, in some cases, intellectual impairment.


  • For some disorders, blood tests

  • Observations

For some disorders (such as fragile X syndrome, Rett syndrome, and DiGeorge syndrome), the diagnosis can be made based on a blood test to check for specific abnormalities.

For other disorders, no test can confirm the diagnosis. Doctors rely on observations of parents and teachers and on those made during the office visit to help determine how severe symptoms are.