Your Views: Children’s mental health: a priority - The World

Date: May 22, 2014

May is National Mental Health Awareness month. More specifically it is also Children’s Mental Health Awareness month. Many communities around the country, including here on the South Coast, have awareness events. We had one here in Coos County on May 16: the Celebration of Hope put on by Kairos Coastline.

Why is awareness of children’s mental health important?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines mental disorders as “serious deviations from expected cognitive, social, and emotional development.” Data recently released by the CDC show that:

n One in 5 children have one or more mental, emotional, or behavioral challenges. For one in 10 they are severe enough to impair functioning at home, school, or in the community.

n Suicide is the second leading cause of death for individuals between 12 and 17.

n The impact cost of children’s mental health problems is $247 billion per year.

Despite these high rates of mental illness, 4 of 5 children 6-17 who have experienced symptoms do not receive any help. Unmet mental health needs complicate daily activities and education. More than 50 percent of students who experience psychological challenges drop out of high school — the highest rate of any disability group. One half of all lifetime cases of such challenges start by age 14 and 75 percent by age 24.

Other research from the CDC deepens the concern. It has been conducting studies regarding the impact of adverse childhood experiences since the mid-1990s. These show that such experiences in childhood are the leading determinant of a host of physical health, behavioral health, and societal problems. The results have been replicated repeatedly and the CDC identifies the relationship between adverse childhood experiences and negative health and life outcomes as the most robust public health data it has seen, equal in power to the relationship between smoking cigarettes and cancer. In fact it refers to adverse childhood experiences as the “smoking gun” — the largest factor impacting long term health, education and welfare in our nation.

The types of experiences in this study are not only those we might suspect — physical abuse, sexual abuse and neglect. They also include experiences that are occurring with increasing frequency in our society — divorce, substance abuse in the household, incarceration or loss of a parent, and domestic violence. Space doesn’t permit examining the study in detail, but you can learn about it by Googling “adverse childhood experiences.”

These findings can be explained by the emerging brain research. Simply put, stressful and adverse experiences in early childhood impede neural development. Key competencies that we rely on our brain for, such as the ability to control our impulses, to establish reciprocal social relationships, and to exercise critical thinking skills simply don’t develop in the presence of significant adversity. The mental health and wellness of a person under these circumstances is severely compromised, leading to what we commonly identify as mental health problems — deviations from expected development.

However the research also offers hope, showing that our brains change with experience and that the right types of experience can help facilitate new ways of coping, relating and thinking. There is increasing evidence that early detection and intervention strategies for mental health issues improve children’s resilience and ability to succeed in life.

There is much we can do as a community and as a society to act upon this knowledge. We can create awareness regarding positive mental health climates and activities, and actively work to eliminate stigma of those with mental health challenges. We can contact our public officials to support resources for intervention and prevention. We can learn about the research-supported belief that children do well if they can and help them learn how.

In our community we’re blessed with significant children’s mental health support for a town of this size. Kairos, the organization from which I have learned this information, provides intensive mental health services to young people age 4 through 24 and their families. With an active presence in the county it works in close collaboration with Coos County Mental Health, Child Welfare, Juvenile Department, Casa, Bob Belloni Ranch, Adapt and other community partners, to provide a range of innovative services and supports for young people with serious mental health challenges and their families. Western Oregon Advanced Health, the local Coordinated Care Organization, helps facilitate efforts to enhance the quality and  experience of care for children and families. As a result of these efforts Coos County is becoming recognized statewide for its work to coordinate the efforts of many to improve care.

Please be aware of the work of all these organizations, learn from them, and support their efforts. Together we can create a community that is aware of the importance of mental health and wellness for our youngest and most vulnerable people, who also carry our future within them.

Bob Lieberman is CEO of  Kairos, a multi-service children’s mental health agency that provides a range of services in Coos County. For more information about Kairos please go to our website at www.kairosnw.org or contact Mary Lynne DeRocher at 541-956-4943, ext. 1116.

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