Mental health — an essential part of children's overall health — has a complex interactive relationship with their physical health and their ability to succeed in school, at work and in society. Both physical and mental health affect how we think, feel and act on the inside and outside.
For instance, an overweight young boy who is teased about his weight may withdraw socially and become depressed and may be reluctant to play with others or exercise, which further contributes to his poorer physical health and as a result poorer mental health. These issues have long-term implications on the ability of children and youth to fulfill their potential as well as consequences for the health, education, labor and criminal justice systems of our society.
For instance, a boy named Bobby is being physically abused by his father and often acts out aggressively at school. His behavior is a natural reaction to the abuse, but his behavior may also mark the beginning of undiagnosed conduct disorder. His teachers simply see him as a troublemaker and continually punish his behavior. Later, Bobby drops out of school as a teenager because he finds it a harsh and unwelcoming environment and is anxious to leave his abusive home and fend for himself. However, holding down a job is difficult because Bobby often clashes with his coworkers and supervisors due to his aggression. Bobby has also begun to self-medicate by abusing alcohol and has been arrested a number of times for drunken disorderliness. By the time Bobby finally receives a proper diagnosis of his conduct disorder and substance abuse, he is in his thirties and his mental health problems have become deeply entrenched. They will require extensive therapy, which Bobby probably cannot afford without a job that provides adequate health insurance. Things could have been very different if Bobby was referred to a psychologist in his childhood who could have diagnosed him, offered effective treatment, and alerted the authorities about the abuse.
All children and youth have the right to happy and healthy lives and deserve access to effective care to prevent or treat any mental health problems that they may develop. However, there is a tremendous amount of unmet need, and health disparities are particularly pronounced for children and youth living in low-income communities, ethnic minority youth or those with special needs.