Early warning signs Mental health problems can start early and last a lifetime

Posted on October 7, 2011 in Health Debates

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CalgaryHerald.com – health
October 7, 2011.   By Valerie Berenyi, Calgary Herald

Jodi came into the world six weeks early. She wasn’t a difficult baby, but she “always needed a little extra attention,” says her mom Linda.

“We were very overprotective because she was a preemie. And I was not well as a mom because I had toxemia. It was a hugely difficult time for our family,” says Linda, a Calgarian who requested we not use the family’s last name.

As a toddler Jodi was bright and full of life; she followed her big sister around, soaking up the world like a sponge.

Just before she had her tonsils out at age six, Jodi learned about the “germs in her throat” during a preparatory session at the hospital. She began washing her hands to get rid of those germs. Constantly.

“Every time I looked down the hall she’d be in the bathroom, standing up on her little stool, washing her hands,” Linda recalls. “Before bed, she’d scrub her hands and hold them above the covers so she didn’t touch anything until morning.”

Around the same time, Linda’s husband Dale noticed their daughter surreptitiously tapping things with her ring finger as she moved about.

When Jodi started Grade 1 she was eager to learn but distracted and annoyed by other children. The teacher told Linda and Dale there was something “a little different” about their daughter, describing her as aggressive and supersensitive, and recommending Jodi be tested for attention deficit disorder.

They didn’t do the testing, figuring their smart little girl was just bored and would outgrow it. She didn’t. Jodi was teased and bullied at school. She didn’t fit in, had no friends and felt increasingly isolated and lonely. By Grade 6, Jodi began cutting herself, “really trying to hurt herself – a lot,” says her mom.

She’d use whatever was sharp enough to slash her arms, and would bruise herself with things like the horns of her little plastic ponies, covering everything up with long sleeves.

When Linda and Dale sought help for her daughter in the small Alberta town where they lived, she says they were told: “Oh, it’s a phase. Lots of kids do that. She probably saw somebody do this at a sleepover. It happens all the time.”

“They did not address it at all. I thought ‘Well, maybe we are overreacting.’ ” But whenever the family reprimanded Jodi’s behaviour, it worsened. “It was terrifying. Your kid is bleeding.”

How young is too young?

Increasingly, mental health disorders are seen as resulting from a complex interplay of genetic, biological, personality and environmental factors that may have roots in childhood.

How early is unknown, but behaviourial problems with babies and toddlers can show up as difficulties with eating, sleeping and playing. These “disturbed biorhythms” may reflect a child’s difficult temperament or a stressful environment, says Dr. Chris Wilkes, an associate professor at the University of Calgary and the former division chief of child and adolescent psychiatry for Alberta Health Services.

They can also affect the attachment process between mother and child. A child who’s hard to feed and settle can be tough to raise – even though a calm, soothing and supportive environment is precisely what’s needed for both child and parent, he says.

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