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

Know when and where to ask for help.

June 27, 2014, 5:40 AM

— -- 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.

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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.

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:

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.”

But other times, the little girl talked about hurting herself or hurting others. Once, she hurt the dog, and Gallagher could hear the animal from down the street.

“One time we took her to the hospital, she said she wanted to jump out the window with her brother,” Gallagher said.

She was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and ADHD soon after.

Today, Gallagher’s daughter is 11. She knows she has a mental illness and isn’t afraid to talk about it, though some days are easier than others, Gallagher said.

“On very bad days when she’s sad and upset, she’ll say, ‘Why is something wrong with me? Why am I different?’” Gallagher said. “But for the most part, she’s proud of who she is. She loves dolphins, she loves to sing and dance and do all the things all the other kids can do.

“Some kids have diabetes, and some kids have other illnesses,” Gallagher said. “This is just something different with her brain.”

Get more information about spotting the signs of mental illness and getting help from the National Institutes of Mental Health.

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