Preserve kids' mental health with an ounce of early identification

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We’re all familiar with the adage about an ounce of prevention being worth a pound of cure, but what about the case of childhood mental health disorders? Prevention, itself, is not always feasible due to the biological basis of many mental health diagnoses and, let’s face it, some of the cruel realities of life.

Research published by the National Alliance on Mental Illness reveals that as many as 4 million children and adolescents in this country suffer from serious mental illness that significantly impairs their functioning at home, in school and with peers. Furthermore, an estimated 21 percent of our nation’s children have a diagnosable mental-health or substance-abuse disorder that causes at least minimal impairment in their lives.

Despite such daunting prevalence, only 20 percent of children and adolescents with mental illnesses are identified and receive appropriate intervention services, leaving the other 80 percent behind. To date, our nation has failed to identify and support the overwhelming majority of children and adolescents living with mental illness.

Though many childhood emotional problems are transient and will likely resolve with minimal support, the potential long-term effects of untreated mental illness are alarming. Suicide is the third leading cause of death in people ages 15 to 24 in the U.S. Statistics from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration indicate that over 90 percent of youth who commit suicide have a mental illness; approximately 50 percent of students with a mental illness age 14 and older drop out of high school (the highest dropout rate of any disability group); and an alarming 65 percent of boys and 75 percent of girls in juvenile detention have at least one psychiatric disorder.

Most people first present with signs of mental illness between the ages of 12 and 17. New research suggests there is a window of opportunity in those years for treatment that could dramatically alter the course of a person’s life for the better. Early identification of mental illness can help parents and caregivers identify children’s and adolescents’ emotional or behavioral challenges and assist in getting them appropriate support before problems worsen and longer-term consequences develop. Therefore, screening procedures to accurately identify children with potentially serious mental health problems are of the utmost importance.

Among the first lines of defense for young people experiencing mental health or substance use problems are pediatricians, school personnel and community youth workers. Here, children can be screened to determine the level of impairment and an appropriate course of action. Many children can benefit simply from auxiliary support at home, in school or through other activities and programs in which they’re involved. However, for those children presenting with more significant concerns, referrals can be made to mental health specialists within the community.

Though historically, specialists have been scarce in the Walla Walla Valley, recent exposure regarding the paucity of mental health services here is drawing new professionals and services to the area. Furthermore, changes in national legislation are promoting better access to these services. So, if you suspect that your child may be suffering from a mental health disorder or is simply having difficulty adjusting to life circumstances, discuss it with the professionals in their lives. The potential benefit is immeasurable on any scale.

Emily Rea, Psy.D. is a licensed clinical psychologist at the Walla Walla Clinic Pediatric Department.

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