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SALT LAKE CITY -- No parent wants to hear their child has a mental illness. It's a diagnosis that can carry a stigma and a lot of fear.

Many parents fear telling their children about a mental condition will only make it worse. But doctors say telling them is what can make all the difference in their prognosis.

If we just kind of sweep it under the rug ... the challenge is then that we might not get treatment for the condition.

–Dr. Adam Schwebach


Ten-year-old Isaac Ulmer has a big, toothy grin that lights up a room. But up until a few months ago he wasn't doing much smiling.

"He's a worry wart. He worries about lots of things - a lot more than the average person would," his mother, Kim Ulmer, says. "Everybody has anxiety, but Isaac worries a lot about everything."

It was more than just nerves. Kim says her son would stay up at night stressing and couldn't complete simple tasks. "I actually noticed way back when he was in kindergarten. But for several years I thought the issues were related to ADD," she says.

"I knew that I was different and that things would be difficult," Issac says.

Doctors began treating Isaac for attention deficit disorder, but nothing seemed to help. After switching doctors earlier this year, Isaac was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Then came the dilemma: Should Kim tell her son about his condition?

"I think parents, in general, don't want anything to be wrong with their child, let alone a mental health condition," says Dr. Adam Schwebach, with the Neurology Learning Behavior Center in Salt Lake City.

Finding help for mental illness...
Many people don't know where to go for help. The following organizations that have information, including symptoms, classes and help lines:

Schwebach encouraged Isaac's parents to be open with their son. He says many parents fear their child will be stigmatized, or that learning about their illness may make it worse by creating more anxiety. But he believes openness can have the opposite effect.

"If we just kind of sweep it under the rug, ignore that their child might be dealing with some type of condition, the challenge is then that we might not get treatment for the condition," Schwebach says.

If a child is aware of their illness, they can help with treatment, Schwebach says. He encourages parents to use age-appropriate language when explaining the diagnosis. Together with their doctor, the child and parents create a treatment team.

"What we're really trying to do is prevent future problems," Schwebach says. "We're trying to prevent the child from having more trouble as an adult. We're trying to prevent them from having adverse problems from that mental condition right now in their life. And I think if we don't tell them, it leads to more problems in the future."

For Isaac, hearing his diagnosis brought relief. He's now taking new medication, and it's working.

"[I try to] help him understand that we can deal with it, and it doesn't make him any less of a person," Kim says. "It's just something that we gotta deal with."

For more tips on how to speak to kids about mental illness, click on the "Related Links" to the right of this story.


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Jennifer Stagg


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