Mental illness affects millions, and we haven't always been good at recognizing it—especially in children. With attitudes that assume depression and anxiety are the result of experiences, we tend to think kids are too young to be living with mental illness.
But kids are born with mental illness, predisposed to it at least. New research, published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry found that certain patterns of brain connectivity in newborn babies can predict mental illness—including signs of sadness, excessive shyness, nervousness or separation anxiety.
Researchers scanned brains of 65 full-term newborns and 57 premature infants born to determine whether the connections between certain areas of an infant's brain and amygdala (the gray matter inside each cerebral hemisphere) would affect a child's chance of contracting symptoms found in clinical depression and anxiety disorders.
Though children can show signs of mental illness as early as 2 years old, past comparisons suggest that preterm infants are more likely to develop psychiatric issues later in life. By distinguishing the difference in brain connectivity between babies born prematurely and those carried to full-term, researchers hoped to understand why.
It turns out, the brain connectivity patterns found in healthy, full-term babies are similar to that of an adult. However, the strength between the amygdala and other brain regions found in premature infants is lower.
“The fact that we could see these connectivity patterns in the brain at birth helps answer a critical question about whether they could be responsible for early symptoms linked to depression and anxiety or whether these symptoms themselves lead to changes in the brain,” said Cynthia Rogers, M.D., an assistant professor of child psychiatry. “We have found that already at birth, brain connections may be responsible for the development of problems later in life.”
Researchers plan to evaluate the children again when they are 9 to 10 years old to look at brain development and evaluate the lasting impact of the connectivity patterns.
“If we can understand what patterns of connectivity are related to early social and emotional impairments, we can then study what predicts those connectivity patterns,” says Rogers. “We can evaluate whether there are experiences these children have while in the hospital or early in infancy that change these patterns for better or worse that we can aim to modify.”
Though there is little a parent can do to prevent mental illness from touching their child, keeping an eye out for warning signs can hugely impact the outcome of their well-being. Experts agree that all children experience anxiety on some level, but parents need to be mindful of changes in behavior. For example, if your child is experiencing excessive worry, trouble sleeping, fatigue, irritability or difficulty concentrating that impairs their day-to-day performance, it may be a sign they are struggling with anxiety or depression.
If you are concerned that your child is exhibiting signs of mental illness, you may wish to consider reaching out to their primary care physician for guidance. Additionally, whenever approaching a child to talk about what they are experiencing, make sure you do so in a non-threatening and supportive way.