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How to Get a Mental Health Diagnosis for Your Child 

how to get diagnosed with mental illness

Mental illness is a reality for millions of individuals. It is estimated that, each year, up to 20 percent of children in the United States (1 in 5) are living with a diagnosable mental health disorder. More than 50 percent of Americans will be diagnosed with a mental health disorder at some point in their lifetime.  

However, many cases also go undiagnosed. Some people are scared to seek help, or do not have the means and support system to do so. Many people—especially children and adolescents—do not recognize that they need help at all. The problem is that, when mental illness is not diagnosed and treated, it can spiral into worsened symptoms, trigger other mental health conditions, and put a person at risk for serious consequences, like suicide and drug abuse. Therefore, it is vital to seek help if you suspect signs of a mental health problem. Mental illness is treatable, and a diagnosis is the first step. 

Do you suspect your son or daughter is showing signs of a mental health disorder? Mental illnesses can range from mild to severe, and there are a variety of disorders that young people can face. Some of the most common include depression, anxiety, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, and eating disorders. It can be difficult for a parent to know when it is time to seek help.  

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), when ongoing symptoms cause frequent stress and disruptions in a person’s daily life, they likely have a diagnosable mental health disorder. However, you do not need to wait until a breaking point to seek help. You can seek professional treatment even at the early signs of a mental illness—in fact, the earlier a disorder is identified and diagnosed, the greater likelihood of recovery success. 

Signs Your Child May Need a Mental Health Diagnosis 

Mental health disorders can happen at any age, but often begin in adolescence. Different ages may exhibit different symptoms of a mental health disorder. If your loved one is facing the below signs, as cited by Mental Health America, it is important to speak with a medical or mental health professional. 

Common Signs of Mental Illness in Children: 

  • New academic challenges, or changes in school performance 
  • Excessive worry, fear, or anxiety that affects their daily life (e.g. refusing to go to school) 
  • Hyperactivity and inability to pay attention/sit still 
  • Incessant nightmares and trouble sleeping 
  • Persistent aggression, disobedience, disrespect, and/or violent behaviors 
  • Frequent temper tantrums and excessive mood swings 

Common Signs of Mental Illness in Adolescents: 

  • Inability to cope with problems or difficult emotions 
  • Drug and alcohol abuse 
  • Changes in sleeping and/or eating habits 
  • Feeling physically ill without real cause  
  • Getting in trouble with authorities or the law (e.g. theft, vandalism, truancy) 
  • Defiance of parental figures, as well 
  • Constant issues with body image 
  • Mood swings and/or prolonged negative moods 
  • Frequent outburst of anger or violent acts 
  • Thoughts or threats of self-harm and death 

Common Signs of Mental Illness in Adults/Young Adults: 

  • Prolonged periods of sadness or irritability 
  • Excessive worries, fears, or anxieties 
  • Feelings of extreme highs and lows 
  • Confused or disoriented thinking  
  • Withdrawal from family and friends, as well as once-loved activities 
  • Dramatic changes in eating or sleeping habits 
  • Delusions or hallucinations 
  • Inability to cope with problems, negative emotions, and difficult situations 
  • Constant denial of obvious problems 
  • Substance abuse 
  • Physical ailments that are unexplained 
  • Suicidal thoughts and attempts at self-harm 

How is Mental Illness Diagnosed? 

Mental illness is often thought of as a silent disease, as its symptoms are not always obvious and its diagnosis is not always straightforward. Unlike diabetes or cancer, a simple blood test or scan cannot be used to diagnose a mental health condition. Rather, a person must complete a series of evaluations and mental health screenings to come to a diagnosis. This process typically involves the following: 

  1. A Physical Exam 

Most mental health diagnoses begin with a physical exam by a doctor or physician. This exam might include diagnostic tests to identify any underlying health problems that might be causing issues with one’s mental health. Some health conditions, such as a thyroid problem, can trigger mental health symptoms. The physical exam is designed to rule out potential physical causes, before referring the patient to a mental health treatment provider or specialist. 

  1. A Psychological Exam 

The psychological or psychiatric exam is typically conducted by a specialized mental health professional. This typically begins with a conversation, in which a clinician or therapist will talk to the patient about the symptoms they are experiencing, as well as any family history of mental illness. The provider may also administer a more structured mental health screening or evaluation, with specific questions around one’s symptoms, struggles, feelings, functioning, and background. The provider will then use the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fifth edition (DSM-5) to determine the proper diagnosis.  

It’s possible (and common) for a patient to be facing more than one mental health condition. It is also possible for a diagnosis to change over time, if a patient’s symptoms change. 

  1. A Treatment Plan 

Once a mental illness is diagnosed, recovery can begin. A mental health professional will work to create an individualized treatment plan for the patient, based on their symptoms and experiences. The treatment plan might involve therapy (inpatient or outpatient), medication, and/or lifestyle changes. It may also involve a combination of different treatment providers or therapy modalities, to ensure the patient receives full, well-rounded care. For example, at Turnbridge’s mental health treatment center, adolescents and young adults may participate in: 

  • One-on-one counseling 
  • Group therapy 
  • Family therapy 
  • Behavioral therapies such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy 
  • Meditation and Mindfulness 
  • Holistic activities such as exercise, yoga, and nutrition planning 

Residents of our program also have 24/7 access to licensed clinicians, social workers, and support staff. 

Where to Go for a Mental Health Diagnosis: 

When seeking a mental health diagnosis for your loved one, one of the best places to begin is your family doctor or primary care provider. This doctor can provide a physical examination and possibly a basic, preliminary mental health screening. They can refer you to a mental health specialist for further evaluation and treatment. You may also do research on your own to find the best mental health treatment center, and speak with or interview several providers before deciding on the right one. 

If you do not have a doctor or do not feel comfortable going to a doctor for an assessment, you can always jump straight to speaking with a mental health professional. A mental health professional can ask you some preliminary questions over the phone, as well as schedule an appointment with your child to do a more in-depth screening.  

If you do not know where to turn, you may contact Turnbridge for guidance at 877-581-1793. 

There are a variety of mental health professionals who can diagnose and treat mental illness: 

  • Psychiatrist: Psychiatrists are medical doctors with specialized training in mental health diagnoses and treatments. Psychiatrists may be general practitioners, or specialize in child and adolescent psychiatry. 
  • Psychologist: Psychologists are trained to diagnose mental health conditions, as well as provide individual and group therapy. These professionals have a doctoral degree in psychology. 
  • Clinical Social Worker: Clinical social workers are trained to administer diagnoses and provide individual or group counseling. These professionals have a master’s in social work. 
  • Licensed Professional Counselor: Licensed Professional Counselors also have a master’s degree, and are trained to diagnose mental health conditions and provide counseling. 
  • Mental Health Counselor: Similarly, mental health counselors have clinical experience combined with a master’s education, and can diagnose mental illnesses as well as provide counseling in individualized or group settings.  
  • Certified Alcohol and Drug Abuse Counselor: Also called substance abuse counselors, these professionals have specialized training in drug and alcohol abuse, as well as potential, co-occurring mental health conditions. They can also diagnose mental illnesses and provide counseling. 
  • Family Therapist: A family therapist has specialized graduate education and training in family therapy, and can diagnose as well as provide counseling for mental health conditions. 

Reputable mental health treatment providers will have a diversity of clinical professionals and staff, ready to meet the needs of each patient demographic. At Turnbridge, for example, we have a team of experienced clinicians, licensed counselors and therapists, case managers, and support staff with dedicated training in the treatment of adolescent and young adult mental health disorders

Learn about our team here. 

There are many benefits to getting a mental health diagnosis, but the most important one is that it will put your child on the path towards recovery. After a mental illness is diagnosed, a void is filled. There is reason and meaning behind the symptoms your child has been experiencing. There is hope and potential for a successful recovery. There are answers. There is a plan forward. A mental health diagnosis paves the way for treatment, which can be tailored to the unique needs of your loved one. 

If you are interested in speaking with a mental health treatment specialist at Turnbridge, or would like to learn about our individualized treatment programs for youth, please do not hesitate to reach out. Call 877-581-1793 today or contact us online to learn more.