Striving for a Better Response to Childhood Mental Illnesses
by Tami Silverman, President & CEO of Indiana Youth Institute
Mental health was rightfully a central issue in Indiana’s 2023 legislative session. An increasing number of our children and youth have mental illnesses, 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 mental health issues 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, support, and services, and work to build strong support networks for all our young people.
The Journal of the America Medical Association (JAMA) has researched the U.S. National and State-Level Prevalence of Mental Health Disorders and Disparities of Mental Health Care Use in Children. It estimates 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 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.
In 2021, 46.9% of Indiana high school students felt sad or hopeless almost every day for two weeks, up from 29.3% in 2015. We know that accessibility to mental health providers remains an issue. In Indiana, there are 558 residents per every one mental health provider. Although that ratio has improved each year since 2017, it still leaves many without the needed care. 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. Dr. Harold S. Koplewicz’s article outlines the following myths:
- A child with a psychiatric disorder is damaged for life
- Psychiatric problems result from personal weaknesses
- Psychiatric disorders result from bad parenting
- A child can manage a psychiatric disorder through willpower
- Therapy for kids is a waste of time
- Children are overmedicated
- Children grow out of mental health problems
Understanding that most psychiatric disorders begin before age 14 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 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.
About the Indiana Youth Institute :
For over three decades, Indiana Youth Institute (IYI) has supported the youth services field through innovative trainings’, critical data, and capacity-building resources, aiming every effort at increasing the well-being of all children. To learn more about IYI, visit www.iyi.org, follow us on Facebook or Twitter.