By Tami Silverman, President & CEO, Indiana Youth Institute
An increasing number of our children and youth have mental health disorders, encountering challenges with school, within their peer groups, and at home. Unfortunately, most of them are not getting the care they need. Signs of mental health disorder may be difficult to recognize, and unfortunately mental health disorders continue to be stigmatized. These, combined with a lack of access to services for many, create substantive barriers to care. More must be done to combat widely-held myths, connect children with treatment, supports, and services, and work to build strong support networks for all our young people.
A February 2019 study in JAMA Pediatrics estimated that 7.7 million American children, one in every 6 children, have at least one mental health disorder. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), ADHD, behavior problems, anxiety and depression are the most commonly diagnosed mental disorders in children, and some of these conditions, such as anxiety and depression, commonly occur together. The JAMA Pediatrics study also showed that roughly half of children do not receive any kind of treatment from a mental health professional.
Last year, 11.6% of Hoosier children received treatment or counseling from a mental health professional, a significant number, and yet still only a portion of Indiana children in need. The National Survey of Children’s Health indicates that 5.2% of Indiana children have ever been diagnosed with depression, and 11.0% have been diagnosed with anxiety. We know that accessibility remains an issue in Indiana. Among our neighboring states, Indiana has the lowest ratio of mental health providers available to serve the population, approximately 1 per every 700 people, and nearly 60% of the state’s population lives in designated mental health professional shortage areas.
Identifying mental health issues may be less obvious than physical ailments, such as broken bones, asthma, or diabetes. Occasional bouts with emotional distress, anxiety, stress, and depression are normal experiences for all children and youth. It can be difficult to distinguish between behaviors and emotions that are related to typical child development, and those that require extra attention and concern.
The national nonprofit Child Mind Institute describes seven myths about childhood mental illness that need to be debunked. These include recognizing that childhood mental illness is not caused by personal weakness or poor parenting. Children and youth cannot overcome mental health problems through willpower, nor will they grow out of their disorder. Instead, understanding that most psychiatric disorders begin before age fourteen provides additional incentive to screen and intervene during childhood. Children who receive early interventions and treatment have a good chance of managing or overcoming their symptoms.
How do you know when a child’s behavior is cause for concern? You should always seek immediate help for a child or teen who harms themselves or others or talks about wanting to do so. While short term stress, anxiety or depression can be developmentally appropriate, the National Institute of Health (NIH) advises that you should also seek help if a child’s behavior or emotional difficulties last more than a few weeks and are causing problems at school, at home or with their friends. Young children may exhibit symptoms such as intense worry or fear, frequent tantrums, complaints about frequent stomach or headaches with no known medical cause, and a lack of interest in playing with other children. Symptoms in teenagers include a loss of interest in previously enjoyable activities, spending increasing amounts of time alone or avoiding social activities, sleeping too little or too much, and engaging in risky, destructive or self-harming behaviors. The NIH recommends talking with your child’s teacher and consulting your pediatrician, asking either for a recommendation to a mental health professional who has specific experience in dealing with children, when and if possible.
Caring adults and a strong support network, including family members, teachers, coaches and mentors, can serve as protective factors for mental health. Indiana’s Family and Social Services Administration Division of Mental Health and Addiction manages our state’s Systems of Care, a model framework used to coordinate services and supports. Schools throughout the state continue to expand their services and expertise, understanding the importance of prevention, intervention, positive development, and communication to families.
While many agree that progress has been made regarding how mental health is viewed, stigma and negative connotations still keep far too many children from getting critical care and support. It is important to understand and work to reduce the barriers of stigma and access to mental health care. It is equally, if not more important, to understand that, for most youth, childhood mental disorders are episodic rather than permanent. Just as with physical illnesses, keys include ensuring children in need can receive appropriate screening and treatment. We would not ignore a child’s physical ailment, and it is time that we consistently take the same approach to their mental health.
(Tami Silverman is the President & CEO of the Indiana Youth Institute. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @Tami_IYI. IYI’s mission is to improve the lives of all Indiana children by strengthening and connecting the people, organizations, and communities that are focused on kids and youth.)