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Early Warning Signs about Children’s Mental Illness Not Evident to Many Canadian Parents

Most parents take ‘watch and wait’ approach

TORONTO, October 3, 2011 — More than half of Canadian parents (57 per cent) are concerned about the mental health of their children and most will simply monitor behaviours that can actually be early indicators of problems, rather than seek advice or treatment, according to a new RBC-Today’s Parent survey of more than 2,500 Canadian parents on children’s mental health.

The survey also showed a lack of awareness about children’s mental health overall. More than two-thirds of parents (68 per cent) thought that attention deficit disorder is the most common children’s mental health issue. In fact, anxiety is the most common mental health problem facing children and youth in Canada, followed by conduct disorders and attention deficit disorders.

“Most mental health problems start in childhood or adolescence, and the good news is that many children improve with early intervention and treatment, allowing them to get back to their regular activities and lead healthy lives,” said Dr. David Wolfe, psychologist and RBC chair in Children’s Mental Health at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health. “It’s absolutely crucial for parents, doctors and teachers to have a basic level of mental health IQ so they can recognize the warning signs if a child is struggling at an early age.”

“It’s possible that many parents don’t know what warning signs to look for, which means their children could be suffering in silence without much-needed treatment,” added Jamie Anderson, deputy chair of RBC Capital Markets and executive champion of the RBC Children’s Mental Health Project. “Through the RBC Children’s Mental Health Project, we want to help more parents become familiar with the early signs of mental health issues so we can collectively break down the barriers to early intervention and facilitate more effective and timely diagnosis and treatment.”

A change in a child’s behaviour can be an early warning sign of a mental health problem. Depending on the behaviour, approximately 17 to 27 per cent of parents would seek professional help immediately for their child, and a similar proportion would try to manage these situations on their own.

Parents identified the following as their top warning signs for which they would seek professional help:

  • Repeated risky behaviour (59 per cent)
  • Bed-wetting beyond age six (43 per cent)
  • Lack of energy (27 per cent)
  • Regular anxiety about school (24 per cent)
  • Aggressive behaviour (22 per cent)
  • Repetitive behaviour (17 per cent)
  • Frequent displays of temper (17 per cent)
  • Inattentiveness (10 per cent)
  • Excessive shyness (six per cent)

When asked with whom they would discuss their child’s mental health situation, 85 per cent of parents would opt for their family doctor and 53 per cent would talk to a family member. In addition, more than three-quarters of respondents (77 per cent) would turn to the internet for information, but did not necessarily trust what they read (only 11 per cent ranked the internet as the most trusted source). Alternately, parents considered doctors (78 per cent) and health-related organizations (61 per cent) to be among their top two most-trusted sources of information.

Compounding the problem for those parents that do act on their suspicions of children’s mental illness is the lengthy wait time for a formal diagnosis and treatment. Of parents surveyed with a child who was diagnosed with a mental illness, it took an average of two years from the first warning signs until their child was officially diagnosed. For 22 per cent of parents, it took more than three years.

Stigma still a barrier

One significant barrier to early intervention, diagnosis and treatment is stigma. While many parents believe that mental illness in children can be treated, there is widespread concern about stigmatization due to mental illness. Respondents believed that other parents (80 per cent) and children (86 per cent) stigmatize children with mental health conditions.

Nearly seven-in-ten (69 per cent) prefer to obtain information on children’s mental health anonymously so their child would not be “labeled” or “stigmatized”, even though 79 per cent of parents feel that mental illness is a disease like any other. When asked how they would respond if their child was diagnosed with a mental illness:

  • 26 per cent would not want anyone outside of their immediate family to know
  • 25 per cent said that they would feel embarrassed if people found out, with 31 per cent of those parents insisting that it is a personal and private matter
  • 21 per cent worried others would consider them a bad parent.

While many parents in the study expressed progressive views on mental health, they did not trust other people to think the same way. “Parents want to protect their child from the judgments and prejudices of others,” said Anderson. “Sometimes overcoming stigma can be as big a challenge as getting a diagnosis. This fear may prevent parents from seeking help and could delay or hinder necessary treatment for their child.”

Other key highlights from survey include:

  • Among parents with children who had been diagnosed with a mental illness, their most common reaction was relief (40 per cent). Other reactions included: fear (16 per cent); denial (seven per cent); frustration (six per cent); and guilt (six per cent).
  • Mothers were more likely than fathers to look to friends (35 per cent versus 26 per cent) and teachers (42 per cent versus 35 per cent), while fathers are more likely than mothers to turn to professionals such as psychiatrists (26 per cent versus 14 per cent) or faith representatives (seven per cent versus two per cent) when looking to discuss their child’s situation.
  • Younger parents (age 18 to 34) are more likely than parents aged 35 and older to reach out to other parents (41 per cent versus 33 per cent) and family members (66 per cent versus 50 per cent) regarding their child’s mental health condition.
  • Older parents (age 55+) are more likely than their younger counterparts to turn to a professional, like a social worker (22 per cent versus 13 per cent) regarding their child’s mental health condition.

These findings are part of an online survey of 2,556 parents conducted by the Rogers Connect Marketing Research Group and commissioned by the RBC Children’s Mental Health Project and Today’s Parent Magazine from July 11 to August 11, 2011. The results reflect the opinions of Canadian parents with children aged 18 and younger. The margin of error for the full data set —which measures sampling variability — is ±1.9 per cent, 19 times out of 20. Discrepancies in or between totals are due to rounding.

About the RBC Children’s Mental Health Project
The RBC Children’s Mental Health Project is a multi-year philanthropic commitment to support community-based and hospital programs that reduce stigma, provide early intervention and increase public awareness about children’s mental health issues. Since 2009, the RBC Children’s Mental Health Project has donated more than $6.5 million to more than 125 organizations across Canada. Grant applications are accepted year-round from eligible organizations. For more information, visit www.rbc.com/childrensmentalhealth.

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For more information, please contact:

Jennifer Wasley, Weber Shandwick for RBC Children’s Mental Health Project, (416) 642-7903 or jwasley@webershandwick.com

To request a copy of the results of the survey, please send an email to corporateresponsibility@rbc.com, with 'Request copy of 2011 Children's Mental Health survey' as the subject.