How Is Mental Illness in Children Treated

Examples of types of psychotherapy for treating mental illnes in children. Based on informations of the WHO (world health organization).

­Globally, 50 percent of mental illnesses that occur in a lifetime begin by age 14 according to the World Health Organization. Some examples of mental disorders that are diagnosed during childhood include attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), and Autistic Disorder. Mental disorders with onsets that occur during either childhood or adulthood include anxiety disorders such as social phobia and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD); and mood disorders such as depression. Along with pharmacological treatment, mental illness in children is treated with a range of psychotherapy as reviewed.

Types of Psychotherapy

Play Therapy

Play therapy is used to treat mental disorders such ODD, ADHD, anxiety, and depression in children between the ages of 3 to 12. It involves a non-threatening form of communication in which toys represent words. Concepts such as displacement (redirecting feelings from an original target to someone else) and projection (attributing one’s own thoughts and feelings toward someone else) are explored during games. Specifically, children engage in storytelling followed by identifying the feelings of characters in the story; role-playing with puppets as a form of feeling projection; and blowing bubbles to improve deep and controlled breathing. The therapist observes feelings and recurring themes, while challenging the child with more effective alternatives to replace disturbing behavior.

Art Therapy

Art therapy is also used to treat ADHD, anxiety, depression, and family/relationship struggles. Children draw a story of their life events, which is a non-threatening form of feeling expression. Therapists may link a color to certain emotions such as red symbolizing anger. Therapists then analyze the drawing for themes and feelings that they discuss with the child.

Animal-Assisted Therapy

Animal-Assisted Therapy is a new approach that is used to treat depression, anxiety, and Autistic Disorder. Specifically, during equine-assisted therapy or horseback riding, the rhythm of the horse soothes, focuses, and improves the moods of children with Autism. Feeding and grooming horses encourage social interaction and personal responsibility in children. Likewise, canine-assisted therapy is used to reduce stress and calm children with depression, anxiety, and ADHD. These animals are also used as a conversation topic between therapists and children.

Operant Conditioning/Applied Behavior Analysis

Children with more severe mental challenges, where they function significantly below average, are treated with operant conditioning. This approach involves reinforcing a desired behavior in increments through cognitive-behavioral techniques. An example is the self-instructive training of reciting instructions while performing a behavior.

A final, valuable form of treatment is the multi-system approach that involves intervention in multiple settings including family, schools, and peer environments. Family training teaches family members effective ways to respond to children with mental illnesses such as by using positive reinforcement for desirable behavior. Therapists also use multimodal therapy, which is a combination of psychosocial and pharmacological therapy. Specifically, antipsychotic medications treat Autism, antidepressants treat depression, and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) treat obsessive compulsive disorder in children.


­­Atlas: Child and adolescent mental health resources. (2005). World Health Organization.

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