Recent news reports have increased public concern for children’s mental health.
Whether we learn of yet another adolescent or teen suicide in our community or of the brain-damaging and sometimes deadly dangers of “huffing” ( kids’ breathing in of poisonous vapors for a high) — or, the increasing number of children who are finding themselves homeless and alone right here in Washington County due to their families’ economic hardships, and resulting in mental and physical distress for the affected kids – we are all becoming more aware of real and scary mental and physical health problems facing kids in our community.
Still, we can wonder just how wide-spread children’s mental health problems actually are. Are they just one-off headlines to attract our attention or do they represent a challenging reality we need to face today?
Turns out, in total, children’s mental health issues may be more widespread than we may have thought. In fact, a child and family who struggle with a mental health disorder may be the child and family next door.
Until recently, many people didn’t believe that children could have mental health disorders because it was assumed that these disorders only developed in adulthood. Advanced research has shown that a majority of illnesses have their onset in adolescence and some even as early as preschool.
Some disorders may be hard to diagnose because they share characteristics with natural developmental stages, such as tantrums in toddlers and preschoolers. But when behaviors are out of character for a specific age or certain moods (such as sadness) are prolonged for a significant length of time, parents should seek professional advice to determine whether it is simply “a phase” the child is going through or if it is an emotional disturbance that requires treatment.
“More than 14 million children and adolescents in the United States, or one in five, have a diagnosable mental health disorder that requires intervention or monitoring and interferes with daily functioning,” according to the American Academy of Pediatrics on its website for children and families, www.healthychildren.org.
As one might guess, given the large population of children and families affected by mental health issues, childhood disorders present themselves in a variety of ways and with varying degrees of severity. Consequently, parents and caregivers have trouble knowing when and how to help their children. In fact, it can even be difficult to differentiate between the regular childhood behavior that sometimes challenges all parents, teachers and children, and symptoms of a real problem that requires professional help.
Fortunately, help is available here in the East Metro through various organizations.
“HSI offers a full continuum of care that matches the mental health service with the severity of struggle that a child and family are having related to a mental health issue,” states Pam Johnson, LP M.A., HSI’s Director of the Child and Family Mental Health Division. “For a wide range of problems from seeming sad to having a hard time making or keeping friends to isolating oneself and losing interest in activities,” Johnson continues, “families can call us to ask for an outpatient assessment and recommendations.”
“For more significant problems that impair everyday functioning at home, in school and in the community, we offer several additional services,” adds Katie Pape, MSW, LICSW, HSI’s Supervisor of Children’s Mental Health (Case Management). “These additional services are designed with the intention of keeping these severely-challenged children at home and in their school environment where parents, other caregivers, the child and their close community can work together to help the child and family learn how to control symptoms and build skills that can help them manage their disorder.”
“All our programs are rooted in family based work,” Pape continues. “We are here for all families whether they are headed by a single parent, two parents of the same gender, grandparents or are traditional in structure. We act in partnership with parents or other caregivers and their family physicians. Parents know their children best, physicians are interested in the overall health of each individual under their care and HSI knows the mental health service delivery system and other community resources. Working together, we bring pieces of a puzzle together to do what is best in each situation for each child and family. All of this is parent-driven. We provide resources and service options, and parents make the decisions.”
Johnson adds, “We also help families and individuals who are battling chemical dependency. We provide every service we can to support the health of the parent and family in order to support the health of the child. Mental health is not so different from physical health – the two go hand in hand to maintain general overall health. We provide services that can make up a safety net.”
If someone close to you or your primary care physician suggests that you seek help for you or your child, act on their advice right away. Others may see changes in you or your child that you cannot see, and you owe it to yourself and your loved ones to act quickly. HSI offers a 24-hour crisis line with staff available for 24-hour at-home crisis visits. Keep this number handy in case you ever need immediate mental health assistance day or night: 651-777-5222.