Originally printed in The Times on Jan. 25, 2013:
By Eddie Jenkins, director of behavioral health services
Mental illness often only receives attention in light of tragedies such as the recent mass shootings. And then, the discussion usually reinforces stigmas and misunderstanding.
The daily reality is most people with mental illness can live normal, productive lives especially if they receive treatment.
As a mental health professional since 1979, one of my passions has been mental health services for our youth. In 1986 researchers Beth Stroul and Robert Friedman wrote: “Children and youth with Severe Emotional/Behavioral Disturbances are the most underserved and under identified disability population in this country.” Sadly, this statement is largely just as true today.
A number of studies over the past two decades found approximately 21 percent of children and adolescents ages 9 to 17 have diagnosable mental health disorders. That translates to one in five students in school in any year (Florell, 2007). Caddo and Bossier parishes have over 60,000 youth between the ages of 9 and 17. That means a staggering 12,000 of those youth are in need of mental health services. Only a fraction of those youth receive services.
Youth and adults deal with similar adult mental health issues. Children and adolescents experience debilitating depression and anxiety just like adults. However, youth generally lack the coping skills that adults may have to deal with these emotional problems.
Sometimes, children and youth are exposed to traumas arising from any number of family issues like substance abuse, physical abuse or sexual abuse. Lacking coping skills, youth are vulnerable to long-term effects of these traumas unless they are given proper professional help.
In rare cases, children and adolescents may also experience illnesses such as bi-bolar disorder and other illnesses that manifest themselves with hallucinations and delusions. These more serious mental illnesses require treatment with a full array of medication and counseling services.
Volunteers of America of North Louisiana expanded its mental health services last fall to include youth. We began with children in our after-school Lighthouse programs, and even in this short time, I have seen children who have reported improved behavior and relief from distressful emotions.
One such child is “Jane,” a smart, friendly 9-year-old girl. Teachers noticed her grades dropping and she was frequently angry and started getting into trouble. Eventually, caring adults discovered she had been sexually abused, and they referred her to Volunteers of America, where I started working with her.
During counseling sessions Jane was given opportunities to express her anger, sadness and guilt in constructive ways and learned to deal with this trauma. Jane’s mood improved over the course of treatment and her school reported that her grades were starting to improve and she was returning to the well-behaved girl they knew.
If children like Jane are left untreated, they simply “get better” at performing the inappropriate behavior. We simply get better at any behavior we practice over and over. Mental health interventions are designed to break those habits before they become ingrained teach the child more appropriate way of behaving. Similarly, emotional problems don’t just go way with time. Given proper mental health care, youth with emotional issues can be helped to appropriately express their emotions.
By providing youth with mental health services when emotional and behavioral problems are first recognized we help youth cope in the present and we prevent further escalation of those problems. A primary goal for any child is to receive an education. That goal becomes difficult and in some cases almost impossible if the child’s learning is impaired by emotional, behavioral or mental problems.
Every child should have access to mental health services whether at home, school or through the community. The key is recognition that a child has a problem and making the effort to get help for that child.
Our children are, in fact, our future, and our future depends on people who are mentally, physically and spiritually healthy.