Ages & Stages: Mental Health across the Lifespan

Infancy and Early Childhood

A mother's bond with her child often starts when she feels fetal movements during pregnancy. Most mothers experience a surge of affection with their infant immediately after birth. This experience may not occur at all or be delayed under conditions of addiction or postnatal depression. Early disruption of attachment bonds can lead to enduring problems in development and maintaining interpersonal relationships and problems with depression and anxiety.

Wisconsin Alliance for Infant Mental Health

Birth to 3 - Wisconsin's Early Intervention Program

Zero to Three - the National Center for Infants, Toddlers and Families

Childhood and Adolescence

Mental disorders and mental health problems appear in families of all social classes and all backgrounds.  Yet there are children who are at greatest risk, those with: intellectual disabilities; low birth weight; family history of mental and addictive disorders; multi-generational poverty; and caregiver separation or abuse and neglect.

If a young child exhibits some of the outward, behavioral signs listed below, an evaluation by a mental health professional could be useful:

  •  Decline in school performance and grades even though the child is trying hard
  •  Displays of anxiety, such as refusal to go to school or to participate in normal activities for the child’s age
  •  Persistent nightmares
  •  Disobedience or aggression lasting longer than six months
  •  Hyperactivity that goes beyond regular play
  •  Frequent, unexplained outbursts of anger or crying or the reverse, being extremely quiet and withdrawn

While the child is struggling with his or her mental health, the child’s family may also be experiencing a wide variety of difficult emotions. It is important to to assess the mental health of children and adolescents in the context of familial, social, and cultural expectations about age-appropriate thoughts, emotions, and behavior.  A range of effective psychosocial and pharmacologic treatments exists for many mental disorders in children.

Consequences of Untreated Mental Disorders in Children and Adolescents

  • Suicide- the second leading cause of death in youth ages 15 to 24 in Wisconsin.
  • School Failure- 50% of students age 14 and older who are living with a mental illness drop out of high school. The highest dropout rate of any disability group.
  • Juvenile and Criminal Justice Involvement- 65 percent of boys and 75 percent of girls in juvenile detention have at least one mental illness.
  • Higher Health Care Utilization- Left untreated, childhood disorders are likely to persist, become more severe, and difficult to treat.


Child Mental Health Packet(18 page pdf - flyers, articles, book lists - A collaboration of Wisconsin United for Mental Health, Wisconsin Alliance for Infant Mental Health, Wisconsin Family Ties, Wisconsin Public Broadcasting, and Supporting Families Together Association)

Facts for Families (American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry; a collection of several dozen fact sheets including bullying, suicide, children with a mentally ill parent, and bed-wetting.)

Mental Health: It's Part of our Classrooms - Information for educators from SAMHSA's Resource Center to Promote Acceptance, Dignity and Social Inclusion Associated with Mental Health (ADS Center)

Child and Adolescent Action Center  (National Alliance for the Mentally Ill)

Collaborative Systems of Care Website (a resource for Coordinated Services Team (CST) Initiatives, service providers, families, and community members who wish to learn more about Collaborative Systems of Care (CSOC) in Wisconsin.

College Students

College is a time of new beginnings. One of the most exciting aspects about going to college is the endless number of choices students have. Unfortunately, the bounty of decisions and opportunities can lead to schedule overkill and an overabundance of stress. Too often, stress goes unmanaged and turns into a life-altering problem for college students. In the worst case, stress leads to suicide. More likely, though, it results in substance abuse, eating disorders or depression. There are ways to beat stress: improving diet, increasing exercise and setting aside time for yourself everyday aids in handling stress.  Finally, college-age students are especially vulnerable to mental illness; many psychiatric disorders first emerge in the late teens or early twenties.


Active Minds - started by a woman after the suicide of her brother, this non-profit has chapters nationwide that strive to end the stigma of mental illnesses and get students to seek help

The Jed Foundation - started by a couple after the loss of their son Jed to suicide, this organization has programs for college campuses  that strive to promote emotional health and prevent suicide

Mental Health: What a Difference Student Awareness Makes - ideas for generating mental health awareness on campus from the ADS Center

Suicide Cluster Prevention on Campus - SAMHSA Newsletter, Dec. 2015

Pregnancy and the Perinatal Period

Disorders can arise in the months following birth, such as postpartum depression or anxiety, postpartum psychosis or birth-related post traumatic stress disorder.  These disorders can be treated and treatment will benefit both mother and child.  Early disruption of attachment bonds can lead to enduring problems in development and maintaining interpersonal relationships and problems with depression and anxiety.  Risk factors for postpartum depression include: depression or anxiety during pregnancy, stressful recent life events, poor social support and a previous history of depression.

Postpartum Depression - information on the signs, symptoms, repercussions of depression after pregnancy from the Wisconsin Association for Perinatal Care and the Perinatal Foundation

Postpartum Support International  - website offering online support and resources

Postpartum Progress - a web site, which started as a blog, offering information and resources for women, health care providers and the media

When a Parent has a Mental Illness

Many adults with a severe mental illness have a family.  Some estimate that three-fourths of these parents will lose custody of their children for at least some period of time. Having a parent with a mental illness puts a child at a higher risk of developing a mental illness, due to the stress and inconsistency that can occur.

To see how these parents are being supported in Milwaukee, learn more from the Strong Families Healthy Homes of the Mental Health America of Wisconsin.


Strengthening Families (several facts sheets pertaining to issues that might arise if a parent has a mental illness; from Mental Health America)

Children of Parents with a Mental Illness (COPMI) - "An initiative undertaken by the Australian Infant Child Adolescent and Family Mental Health Association (AICAFMHA) with funding from the Australian Government.  The overall aim of the Australian COPMI initiative is to promote better mental health outcomes for children (0 - 18 years) of parents with a mental health problem or disorder."

Maternal Depression—Making a Difference Through Community Action: A Planning Guide (MHA)


One out of every two marriages today ends in divorce and many divorcing families include children. Parents who are getting a divorce are frequently worried about the effect the divorce will have on their children. During this difficult period, parents may be preoccupied with their own problems, but continue to be the most important people in their children's lives.

While parents may be devastated or relieved by the divorce, children are invariably frightened and confused by the threat to their security. Some parents feel so hurt or overwhelmed by the divorce that they may turn to the child for comfort or direction. Divorce can be misinterpreted by children unless parents tell them what is happening, how they are involved and not involved and what will happen to them.

Dealing with Divorce (for teens from KidsHealth by the Nemours Foundation)
A Kid's Guide to Divorce (from KidsHealth by the Nemours Foundation)

Older Adults

Stressful life events, such as declining health and/or the loss of mates, family members, or friends often increase with age. However, persistent bereavement or serious depression is not "normal" and should be treated. Normal aging is not characterized by mental or cognitive disorders.

Depression often co-occurs with other serious illnesses, such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes, cancer, and Parkinson's disease. Because many older adults face these illnesses as well as various social and economic difficulties, health care professionals may mistakenly conclude that depression is a normal consequence of these problems — an attitude often shared by patients themselves.

These factors together contribute to the underdiagnosis and undertreatment of depressive disorders in older people. Depression can and should be treated when it co-occurs with other illnesses, for untreated depression can delay recovery from or worsen the outcome of these other illnesses.


The Wisconsin Geriatric Psychiatry Initiative

Services for the Elderly - Wisconsin Department of Health Services

Promoting Emotional Health and Preventing Suicide: A Toolkit for Senior Centers - SAMHSA

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