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To The Editor:
What does mental health mean? Some may answer, a “state of mind” or “being content with life.” Very simply put, mental health is the ability to manage daily life and any challenges that occur along the way. The month of May was designated as national Mental Health Month sixty-five years ago to build awareness of mental illness and the importance of mental wellness for all.
To enjoy good health, we must care for our mind as well as our body. Mental health is sometimes overlooked, but overall wellness and healthy development are not possible without it – especially among our children and teenagers. Yet when a child experiences behavioral issues or reactions to a traumatic event, parents may be reluctant to acknowledge the need for professional help. This can stem from fears that emotional problems will compromise their child’s future opportunities or that some inadequacy in their parenting may have caused the problem.
Symptoms indicating a child’s need for treatment can vary; the child may be withdrawn, overactive, or committing or expressing thoughts of violence towards him/herself or others.
Children sometimes need help because of major life changes or certain predispositions. They may react to problems that can impact the stability of any family, such as the death or illness of a family member, a parent’s loss of employment or divorce. In other cases, neurobiological factors may be at work, with the child’s natural temperament setting the stage for mental health challenges. Delaying or ignoring the need for treatment will only make the child’s life more difficult as s/he struggles to cope with emotions that cannot be understood or overcome without assistance from clinicians with the expertise to help.
For a more complete illustration of the landscape of children’s mental health, we need only look at the numbers. The Surgeon General reports that 1 in 5 children experience signs and symptoms of mental health disorders. Nationally, up to 14 percent of children, age birth to 5 years, experience social-emotional problems that negatively impact their functioning, development, and school-readiness. The Child Health and Development Institute reports that an estimated 160,000 children throughout Connecticut have mental health needs, but only 20 percent of them can access treatment. This issue is more prevalent than many people think; it is widespread and warrants all of our attention.
Unfortunately, there is a damaging misconception that people who suffer from mental health disorders or those who seek mental health treatment are dangerous to the community.
Consequently, those in need become fearful of ostracism and are reluctant to seek out the services that will help them. Even people with the most serious psychiatric disorders, when receiving the proper treatment, are no more likely to commit violent acts against those around them than someone without a disorder. In fact, people with mental health problems are far more likely to harm themselves than others. Every year, more teens die of suicide than cancer, heart disease, AIDS, stroke and chronic lung disease combined. A recent study stated that 16 percent of high school age students seriously considered suicide, while 8 percent attempted to end their life.
When left untreated, mental health disorders may seriously impair emotional and social functioning and threaten the child’s long term development. It also creates dangers, increasing the risk that, as an adult, the untreated child will experience unemployment, poverty and difficulties creating stable relationships or providing responsible parenting. But with effective mental health intervention, these repercussions can be mitigated, preparing the child and family to manage adversity and achieve his/her optimal potential. The bottom line is that timely action is critical to a child’s healthy development and professional mental health treatment is as essential as calling the doctor when a child is physically ill.
Mental illness knows no social or income bounds and it affects people across all communities and ethnic backgrounds, whether they are young or old, rich or poor, highly educated or not. During Mental Health Month and for every day afterwards, help spread acceptance and awareness of mental health issues in our lives. A greater understanding of this critical topic is essential to continually building a community where people feel safe seeking professional mental health services that will help them thrive.
The Child Guidance Center of Southern Connecticut is a professionally staffed outpatient mental health center serving children and adolescents in Stamford, Greenwich, Darien and New Canaan. If you are concerned that your child is troubled, unhappy or anxious, or if you are interested in learning more about professional mental health services, please call us at (203) 324-6127. In an emergency anywhere in the state, you can dial 211 to be connected to a local Emergency Mobile Psychiatric Services team. Our agency provides this vital service in our four-town service area.
Sherry Perlstein, MSW
President and CEO
Child Guidance Center of Southern Connecticut The Child Guidance Center of Southern Connecticut serves Greenwich, Stamford, Darien and New Canaan.