Last December was a wake-up call for America when one mentally ill young adult entered Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., and took the lives of 26 individuals. Sadly, these lives could have been saved if Adam Lanza had gotten the mental help he needed as a child. This represents a chronic problem that we face in Virginia and our nation.
May is Children’s Mental Health Awareness month. After more than 38 years providing clinical services and leading United Methodist Family Services (UMFS) — which provides a wide array of services throughout Virginia to children, teens and young adults suffering from mental illness — I am encouraged by health care reform that includes insurance coverage for behavioral assessments for children. Virginia needs to move forward with Medicaid expansion. Many children and adults who do not have access to behavioral health care will be able to receive the care they need.
One in five children and adolescents in the U.S. has a mental disorder that interferes with their daily lives. But fewer than one in five receives the mental health services they need. Anxiety disorders, mood disorders like depression and disruptive disorders like ADHD are the most common mental health disorders among children. When left untreated, children with these mental health disorders are at risk of failing out of school, having increased family conflicts, substance abuse, violence and even suicide.
What is keeping children from getting the mental help they need?
There are three barriers. The stigma of a child with a mental health issue such as depression holds many parents back from talking to someone. Only 15 percent of children with such difficulties have parents that seek help from a health-care provider or school counselor.
The second barrier is a lack of access to care. Pediatricians are not trained to recognize and treat psychiatric problems. Limited time during a check-up does not allow for in-depth analysis of a child’s mental state. There is not enough funding for quality services to prevent and treat mental health problems of children and teenagers. There also is a national shortage of mental health professionals who are trained to work with children. Recently, I spoke to pediatricians who are frustrated by their limited access to community resources. If they had access to a trained children’s therapist, they could not only treat the physical ailment, but address the behavioral issues that will have more chronic impact on the child than the physical ailment.
The third barrier is a shortage of research. There is still a lot of research that needs to be done on the brain, and without significant funding, progress will be slow. I was on a teleconference with Sen. Mark Warner recently when he indicated that with sequestration, research for medical and behavioral health could be in jeopardy. To gain the funding needed for this research during these times when funding cuts are being considered, we have to start treating the mental health of children with the same respect as we do a physical illness.
Early intervention offers the best chance to protect a young person. We to identify the risk of a child for a mental health disorder. We need to have conversations with children about how they are feeling and be open to getting help at the slightest hint of a problem. And, most importantly, we need to demand better access to and funding for children’s mental health treatment.
For me this is personal. My brother-in-law suffered from paranoid schizophrenia. After years of treatment, including hospitalizations and periods of extended placements in treatment facilities, he died in his mid-30s. Several suicide attempts did not take his life, but it is thought that years of medication did. I sat with another family member who was voluntarily being admitted for psychiatric hospitalization. We sat in a bare room for several hours, alone, with little staff contact. This sterile, impersonal treatment not only depressed and angered me, but it solidified my conviction that our loved ones, friends and community members deserve better.
In comparison, I visited Leland House, an unlocked crisis stabilization program that is a partnership between UMFS and Fairfax County. As I sat at the dining room table talking with youth who are dealing with serious mental health issues, their parents, and staff, I was struck by the open, supportive environment, as well as the dignity and respect that were shown. It gave me hope that we can do better.
Through raising our awareness and advocating for a better system of mental health for children, we can turn the growing tide of mental illness in our communities and nation.
Greg Peters, LCSW, is CEO and president of United Methodist Family Services. Contact him at Gpeters@umfs.org.