With many young families still facing the stress of September — new schools, new routines, sports tryouts — parents need to be aware of childhood mental health issues, says the University of Calgary’s new specialist in that area.
The university announced Wednesday the arrival of child psychiatrist and researcher Paul Arnold, who specializes in childhood mental illness and childhood obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
As the new director of the Mathison Centre for Mental Health Research & Education, Dr. Arnold’s work will focus on the genetics and neurobiology of childhood OCD and related neuropsychiatric disorders.
His research has the potential to predict risk factors and target treatment for mental illness. He is also establishing the first lab in Alberta to focus on the genetic origins of childhood mental disorders
Studies have indicated that up to 60 per cent of disorders can be attributed to genetic factors, while the remaining 40 per cent are due to a child’s environment or lifestyle, Arnold said.
And while it’s still unclear whether childhood mental illness is on the rise, or just the awareness of it, Arnold says it’s important parents be aware of its prevalence, treatment options and developing better coping strategies for children living in an increasingly stressful world.
“Young children can’t often explain why it is they’re feeling a certain way, or exhibiting certain behaviours,” Arnold said.
“But parents need to know that these conditions are treatable, even at a very young age, and coping strategies can be created in a supportive environment.”
Anxiety can often be identified in children who are exhibiting more fear and stress about certain situations than their peer group, he said. For instance, while it’s completely normal for a young child to feel anxious during the first few days, even weeks, of school, it may not be normal to still feel stressed into October and November.
Stress in children can also be exhibited in obsessive-compulsive disorders. Repetitive habits and obsessions like constant hand-washing or phobias over germs can be seen in young kids in the same way they’re seen in youths and adults.
But OCD may be exhibited differently in younger kids, Arnold added, like repeating a certain task during play or seeking out unreasonable perfection at school, like when drawing a picture, printing a letter or building a block tower.
“Parents need to know that if their child’s anxiety is getting in the way of their everyday life, they can get treatment,” Arnold said.
“There are a number of cognitive behavioural therapies where we can treat these disorders. We may take the child into a stress situation, but we would help them through that with support.”
Arnold will be available to help treat patients at the Alberta Children’s Hospital, with a specialty in the assessment and treatment of children with OCD.
His research program is supported by the seven-year, provincially-funded Alberta Innovates’ Health Solutions Translational Health Chair in Child and Youth Mental Health.
Ed McCauley, vice-president of research at the U of C, said Arnold’s excellence in the field of childhood psychiatric disorders will fortify the strengths of the school’s existing brain and mental health research team.
The Mathison Centre is focused on understanding the causes of mental illness, brain mechanisms, risk factors and treatments of mental disorders, with special emphasis on youth populations.