Next week is Children’s Mental Health Awareness Week (May 4-10), which helps raise awareness around children’s mental health and May 7 marks National Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day. Why does this matter to me, as Thyroid Mom, you may wonder. Well, you have probably read or heard about the connection between thyroid health and mental health. Depression and anxiety are common symptoms you find on the hypothyroidism/hyperthyroidism check list. In fact, in his article, The Thyroid and the Mind and Emotions/Thyroid Dysfunction and Mental Disorders, Dr. A.G. Awad, MD, PhD, writes: “The psychiatric disturbances which accompany hyperthyroidism and hypothyroidism, the two commonest thyroid disorders, mimic mental illness. People with an overactive thyroid may exhibit marked anxiety and tension, emotional lability, impatience and irritability, distractible overactivity, exaggerated sensitivity to noise, and fluctuating depression with sadness and problems with sleep and the appetite. In extreme cases, they may appear schizophrenic, losing touch with reality and becoming delirious or hallucinating. An underactive thyroid can lead to progressive loss of interest and initiative, slowing of mental processes, poor memory for recent events, fading of the personality’s colour and vivacity, general intellectual deterioration, depression with a paranoid flavour, and eventually, if not checked, to dementia and permanent harmful effects on the brain. In instances of each condition, some persons have been wrongly diagnosed, hospitalized for months, and treated unsuccessfully for psychosis.“
I experienced some of these same symptoms myself. During college and law school, I battled depression and anxiety. Once I began my first job as an attorney, the depression subsided but the anxiety took over. I chalked it up to the stress of being a new lawyer. Eventually, I was diagnosed with hypothyroidism. I feel certain that my thyroid troubles began at that age, and that my struggles with depression and anxiety were related to hypothyroidism. The only other time in my life that I have struggled with depression was after the birth of my first child. Again, at that time, my thyroid levels and many other hormone levels were off. Since being well controlled on thyroid medications, I have not experienced those symptoms.
If you look up “mental health and thyroid health” online, you will find countless other articles explaining the mental health issues one can encounter when thyroid levels are off (either too low or too high). What none of these articles mention is that this doesn’t just affect adults. Children with thyroid disorders can also exhibit symptoms of depression, moodiness and anxiety when their thyroid levels are not within the normal range.
Both of my children have congenital hypothyroidism. They take daily thyroid medication, have their thyroid levels checked regularly, and are monitored by a pediatric endocrinologist. My job as their mom is to pay attention to their symptoms in between those blood draws and doctor visits to ensure that they are still healthy. Moodiness and tearfulness are usually the first indicators to me that that they have become hypothyroid. Agitation, irritability, and anger are usually the first indicators to me that they have become hyperthyroid. In a recent radio interview for Thyroid Nation, I was asked what resources were available for children who experience depression. There are several resources available to parents who are worried about their child’s mental health, and I have them listed at the end of this article. However, if you have a child with a thyroid disorder, and you notice your child becoming depressed, angry, agitated, moody, excessively tearful, etc., call your pediatric endocrinologist and tell them. I would insist that your child’s thyroid levels be checked, particularly if it’s been a long time since their levels have been checked. Your child’s symptoms may be related to their thyroid levels.
About a year ago, I received a message through my Facebook page. A mother told me that she was really worried about her son. He had been really struggling and eventually was diagnosed with bi-polar disorder. He was taking medication, but still wasn’t feeling well. Eventually, it was discovered that her son had severe hypothyroidism. Once his thyroid levels were normalized, he felt better, weaned off the bi-polar medication, and is now living a happy life. I realize that not every mental health issue is caused by underlying thyroid issues. However, if you have a child with a thyroid disorder OR you have a family history of thyroid disorders, it’s worth at least asking your child’s pediatrician or psychiatrist to test thyroid levels as part of their evaluation.
My son has described this feeling he has when he has become hypothyroid. He says he feels “off”. He cries for no reason and can’t explain why. Can you imagine what that must feel like to our children? How helpless that must make them feel? He’s not old enough to always recognize that it’s his thyroid. That’s why it’s so important for me to pay attention to his symptoms – all of them – and to talk openly with his pediatrician and his pediatric endocrinologist about what is going on. If you haven’t had the conversation with your child about hypothyroid and hyperthyroid symptoms, perhaps start by reading over this interview that I did with my son a few years ago (and our follow up interview). It may help get an important conversation going between the two of you. It is vital not to underestimate the connection between thyroid and mental health.
For more resources on mental health for children, please check out these links:
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration
National Federation of Families for Mental Health
American Psychological Association
NIMH Child and Adolescent Mental Health
By Blythe Clifford aka Thyroid Mom