Mental Illness in Kids: How to Spot the Signs and Ask for Help

PHOTO: Peter Rodger, father of Isla Vista shooting suspect Elliot Rodger, sits down with ABCs Barbara Walters for interview.
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Elliot Rodger, the man who killed six people and wounded 13 more before killing himself, had never shown any violent tendencies before the attack, according to his father.

Peter Rodger, a photographer and Hollywood movie director, told ABC News’ Barbara Walters that he never thought his son “could hurt a flea.”

“We didn't see this coming at all,” he said of the massacre in an exclusive interview that will air in full in a special edition of “20/20” tonight.

Visit askforhelp.org for more mental health resources.

But every child is different and some signs of mental illness aren’t as obvious as others, said Alan Kazdin, professor of child psychology and psychiatry at Yale University. What’s more, it can be difficult for parents to know when to seek help, and when they do, resources vary across the country.

WHAT TO KNOW
  • Some signs of mental illness are less obvious than others
  • Resources vary by state, but you can always find help

In Virginia, where Cristy Gallagher lives with her 11-year-old daughter who has bipolar disorder, she’s fought for more state mental health crisis funding for children because her county only had one crisis unit, and police alone can’t give her daughter the help she needs.

“Police will handle a crisis but will not get the child into anything helpful,” Kazdin said, adding that parents can start by calling their state department of family services and asking for a referral to a child mental health specialist.

Gallagher runs a parent support group near where she lives in Northern Virginia through the National Alliance on Mental Illness, a nonprofit. She helps other parents do things like make crisis plans, decide whether to keep their children in public school and come up with coping skills.

“What is interesting to me is how many families are in the same or similar situations that don’t talk about it openly, but will pull me aside and talk about it,” she said.

Kazdin, who runs the Yale Parenting Center, had some tips for parents who think they might have a mentally ill child:

Keep an eye out for isolation. The child doesn’t have to win a popularity contest, but should have at least one good friend.

Get the child involved in a hobby that will build confidence and a social network.

“Be very careful about unsupervised computer time,” he said. Cyberbullying, violent content and porn are easily accessible to tiny fingers, he said, adding that children are likely more web savvy than their parents and can easily get around parental “blocks.”

Don’t grab the child during an argument because it only leads to more aggression. And never use corporal punishment. “Don’t respond to anything physical. That makes things much worse,” he said. “This is what I do for a living so I’ve seen this way too many times.”

Every parent has a threshold for when they seek help with a mentally ill child, Kazdin said, so it’s hard to know when the time is right. That will vary based on the illness, the size of the family and the resources available.

To Gallagher, her elementary school aged daughter’s bouts of mania sometimes looked like sugar highs, but she knew something was wrong.

“For her, it was singing Hannah Montana at the top of her lungs and laughing hysterically. You just know that’s not normal,” Gallagher said. “Jumping around her room from her bed to her floor and back again. Also talking nonstop, which is very common for a manic episode for a kid.”

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