How do you recognize a mental health problem?

By Jessica John, Jr. Reporter May 14, 2024

Understanding Your Role 

Mental health comprises of our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It is crucial in every phase of life, from childhood through adulthood. Our mental health impacts how we think, feel and act. 

We’ve all experienced the highs and lows of life. Of the roughly 40 million adolescents in the US, about 1 in 6 experience a mental health disorder (National Alliance of Mental Illness). Yet, many cases remain unrecognized and untreated.

We sometimes overlook that although children might not have to worry about adulting, they encounter various challenges unique to their generation. In their journey of growing up, they face the stress and pressures of the aftermath of a pandemic, navigating school, social media, and the news and uncertainty of global issues such as climate change. Untreated mental health problems can disrupt a child’s functioning. Without restorative care, children with mental health issues are at higher risk of school delinquency, contact with the criminal justice system, and more dependence on social services. 

Being a sanctuary for kids is an incredible advantage. That safe space allows them to feel supported and respected. Early identification from parents and family members is the first vital step in helping your child reach their full potential. 


What to look for?

The Association for Children’s Mental Health (ACMH) states that some signs your child may be experiencing a mental health crisis include:

  • Rapid mood swings
  • Extreme energy or lack of it (sleeping all the time or insomnia)
  • Severe agitation or pacing, depression, sadness, or irritability
  • Talking very rapidly or non-stop
  • Confused thinking or irrational thoughts
  • Thinking everyone is out to get them or seeming to lose touch with reality
  • Experiencing hallucinations or delusions
  • Making threats to others or themselves or getting into fights with everyone
  • Sudden Self-Isolation
  • Rapid weight loss or gain
  • Suicidal thoughts and statements such as “I want to die” or even possible vague statements such as “I don’t want to be here anymore.”
  • A decline in school performance
  • Poor grades despite strong efforts
  • Constant worry or anxiety
  • Repeated refusal to go to school or to take part in everyday activities
  • Hyperactivity or fidgeting
  • Persistent nightmares
  • Persistent disobedience or aggression
  • Frequent temper tantrums
  • Feeling very sad or withdrawn for more than two weeks
  • Seriously trying to harm or kill themselves or making plans to do so
  • Showing severe out-of-control behavior that can hurt oneself or others
  • Using drugs or alcohol repeatedly
  • Showing drastic changes in behavior or personality

Because children often can't fully comprehend the emotions after difficult situations on their own, you should be more alert if they experience:

  • Death of a Loved one
  • Parents divorcing/separating 
  • Major life transition (ex. new home, new school, etc.)
  • Traumatic life experiences (ex. natural disaster, pandemic, etc.)
  • Physical or Cyber Bullying

Next Steps 

What to do?

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), once you suspect your child is in crisis, you will have some decisions to make. The next course of action depends on their risk level and the available resources. 

Immediate Danger

It is an emergency if you feel your child’s life is in danger. Take immediate action to ensure everyone’s safety. Do not leave them alone during this time! 

If you call 911, let operators know your child is experiencing a mental health crisis. Specialized responders help support youth experiencing mental health crises. Ask if they have a children’s crisis team. These specialists are trained to intervene in these situations and ensure your child's safety. 

No Immediate Danger

Consider the following steps from NAMI if you are sure that your child is not at immediate risk. Although it might not be a “physical emergency,” this is still an urgent state that you must handle as soon as possible. 

  • Create a safe space for kids to share their feelings and actively listen. 
  • Consult with your child’s doctor or another health care provider to seek further information about the behaviors or symptoms that worry you and if your child needs further evaluation by a specialist. Connecting with mental health services for children can be challenging, but primary care physicians can often provide screenings and referrals.
  • Suppose your child is already seeing a specialist. Speak with the specialist about the current situation and any concerns you have.
  • Connect with a hotline or text line that provides crisis intervention services and resources, such as Crisis Text Line or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
  • Create a crisis plan to determine your action plan if your child’s mental health ever escalates to an emergency. 

How to talk with your child?

Before you even begin talking to your child, be aware you're using language in a way that doesn’t stigmatize mental health issues. When a child feels they have a solid support system, they are more open to talking about their mental well-being. A child in need of help is a lot more open to asking for that help if they don't have a fear of being put under a harmful label (ex. crazy). 

Be an active listener! If you are unsure where to start the conversation. Try leading with these questions from

  • Can you tell me more about what is happening? How are you feeling?
  • Have you had feelings like this in the past?
  • Sometimes you need to talk to an adult about your feelings. I'm here to listen. How can I help you feel better?
  • Do you want to talk to someone else about your problem?
  • I'm worried about your safety. Can you tell me if you have thoughts about harming yourself or others?

NAMI has created the free downloadable  “Meet Little Monster” coloring & activity book to help foster dialogue and provide children a tool for helping express and explore their feelings in a fun, creative, and empowering way. states that when talking about mental health problems with your child, you should:

  • Communicate in a straightforward manner
  • Speak at an age-appropriate level to your child’s age and development level 
  • Ensure your child feels safe and comfortable
  • Monitor reactions during the discussion and break information down further if your child seems confused or upset. 
  • Listen openly as the child shares feelings and worries.

Here is a more extensive guide to discussing mental health if you need further advice.


Remember you nor your child are alone in this journey. Listed below are some organizations that will help you and your child. 

Tip: If searching for specific organizations, use the command find function to browse listed resources. 

Here are more resources if you need more help:

National Mental Health Resources And Support Organizations:

Black Mental Health Alliance 

Its mission is to develop, promote and sponsor trusted, culturally-relevant educational forums, training, and referral services that support the health and well-being of Black people and their communities. 

CDC’s List of Helplines 

Crisis Text Line
Crisis Text Line is a global non-profit providing free mental health texting services through confidential crisis intervention via SMS message. They are available all week, 24/7.
Text  741741 to reach a Crisis Counselor. Your opening message can say anything.

Disaster Distress Helpline
The disaster distress helpline provides immediate crisis counseling for people who are experiencing emotional distress related to any natural or human-caused disaster. The helpline is free, multilingual, confidential, and available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Call or text 800-985-5990
Domestic abuse shelters around the United States, find the nearest one using the locator

FORGE reduces the impact of trauma on trans/non-binary survivors and communities by empowering service providers, advocating for systems reform, and connecting survivors to healing possibilities.

This nonprofit's focus is suicide intervention, prevention, awareness, and education.

Lifeline Chat
Lifeline Chat is a service of the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline (formerly known as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline), connecting individuals with counselors for emotional support and other services via web chat.  Lifeline Chat is available 24/7 across the U.S. 

Mental Health Resources For Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders
List of mental health resources for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders by Verywell mind. 

Mental Health Resources for the Hispanic/Latino community
List of mental health resources for the Hispanic/Latino.

Mental Health Resources for Men
List of mental health resources for men. 

Mental Health Resources for Women
List of mental health resources for women. 

National Center for Transgender Equality
The nation's leading social justice advocacy organization in life-saving changes for transgender people provides resources for transgender youth. 
Call 202-642-4542 

National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs (NCAVP)
A national network of service organizations working with LGBTQ people who have been victims of domestic violence

National Institute of Mental Health’s Resources 
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
Call 800-273-TALK (8255); En Español 888-628-9454; After July 16, 2022, dial 988

The NW Network
An organization specializing in providing resources for LGBTQ victims of domestic violence, the NW Network also maintains an extensive “resource clearinghouse.”

Project Semicolon
Project Semicolon is a non-profit movement dedicated to presenting hope to those struggling with mental health, suicide, self-injury, and addiction. As the Project Semicolon website reads: “A semicolon is used when an author could've chosen to end their sentence, but decided not to.

SAMHSA’s National Helpline
SAMHSA offers referrals for substance abuse and mental health treatment 24/7, 365.
Call 800-662-HELP (4357)

Therapy for Black Girls
Therapy for Black Girls is an online space dedicated to encouraging the mental wellness of Black women and girls.

Trans Lifeline
Trans Lifeline provides trans peer support for our community that’s been divested by police since day one. The organization is run by and for trans people.
Call 877-565-8860

The Trevor Project 
The Trevor Project offers suicide prevention services for LGBTQ+ youth.

Local Mental Health Resources And Support Organizations:

Asian Human Services (AHS)
AHS works to ensure that every immigrant and refugee across Chicagoland has access to personalized support and services necessary to become prosperous members of society. They  serve all who seek help and are special experts in the challenges facing refugees, immigrants, and other underserved communities in the greater Chicago area.

Center on Halsted
The Center on Halsted Mental Health Services staff has supported Chicago’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBTQ) community and allies for more than 25 years.  They provide various services, including support, therapy, and educational groups. 

Chicago Department of Public Health
Resources and contacts to local resources. 

Chicago LGBT Youth Resource Guide
Chicago Taskwork provides a guide for LGBTQ+ youth with organizations promoting activism, drop-in programs, legal services, outreach, and housing opportunities for youth in Chicago

Chicago Women’s Health Center (CWHC)
CWHC facilitates the empowerment of women, trans people, and young people by providing access to health care and health education in a respectful environment where people pay what they can afford.

Community Counseling Centers of Chicago (C4)
C4 helps children, adolescents, and adults manage mental health problems, overcome substance use, and recover from traumas. They deliver crisis intervention services, counseling and support, medical services, and trauma recovery. 

Heartland Alliance
Heartland Alliance provides comprehensive services and advocates for systems change to advance social, economic, and racial justice for those who have been denied it.

Howard Brown Health Center 
Howard Brown Health Center provides mental health services specifically tailored for the LGBTQ community, through counseling and psychotherapy available in their Behavioral Health Services department. Individual, couples, family, and group therapies are provided.

Illinois Department of Human Services Division of Mental Health (DMH)
DMH provides various services for children throughout the state. These services are offered through “providers” (ex., mental health clinics, agencies, and hospitals). Find the nearest provider to you today!

Mental Health Centers in Chicago

Mental Health Association of Illinois
MHAI is dedicated to promoting mental health, preventing mental illnesses, and improving the care and treatment of persons suffering from mental and emotional disorders.

Metropolitan Family Services
Metropolitan Family Services empowers families to learn, earn, heal, and thrive.  Metropolitan Family Services has more than 1,100 full- and part-time professional staff dedicated to providing quality services to families throughout Chicago, DuPage County, Evanston/ Skokie, and the southwest suburbs.

NAMI Chicago 
NAMI Chicago educates to fight stigma and discrimination, fiercely advocates for our community, and shares hope, connection, and expertise with people on their mental health journey.
Call at 833-626-4244 to talk with live mental health professional.
(Mon-Fri: 9am-8pm; Sat-Sun 9am-5pm)

Sage Community Health Collective
Sage Community Health Collective is dedicated to providing trauma-informed, body-positive, and harm-reduction healing services.  Their collective focuses on mutual respect, actual capacity, deep compassion, and love for each other and our community.

SAMHSA’s treatment locater
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration can help locate nearby mental health and health care centers.

Thresholds are fighting to transform the lives of people living with mental illnesses. They can help with interventions and recovery from mental illness.

If a mental health emergency occurs, please call 911 or go to your local emergency department for immediate assistance.