Two Powerful Words...Mental Health

You almost have to be living under water not to be aware of the increasing volume about the issue of mental health and our youth.  Mind you, this isn't a new topic particularly for those of us who work in any education-related arena or with children/teens, but since the tragedy in CT, the issue is now front-and-center. Back in my college days, one of my journalism professors spoke about the power of words.  How one word can change everything ... marital communications, business negotiations... everything.  How one word can create or shatter barriers, can alienate or establish understanding.   Just think about the power we have to change outcomes based upon words.

Which brings us to the phrase "mental health."  While the word "health" is associated with visions of organic eating, exercise, relaxation, and long life, the "other" word does not have such positive associations.  With no disrespect toward anyone or anything that follows, we need to admit that there is baggage that accompanies the word mental.  Pre-conceived notions or reality-based or not, mental = sick, crazy, illness, unstable, disorder, abnormal, homeless, psychiatrists, drugs, hospitals, "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest" (for those old enough to remember)...you get the picture.  And when this word is associated with a child or teen -- or your child or teen, it's little wonder why many -- parents included -- hesitate to step over the line from denial to recognition.

The numbers of children and teens struggling with emotional or behavioral issues far exceeds any statistics.  They're struggling at home, in school, and in our communities.  They're struggling in elementary and high school.  They're boys and girls.  Our children are not just slipping through the cracks -- they're cracking.  And the results to the child him/herself can be life-altering, devastating ... or worse.

How many parents have heard things like:  "It's a stage" ... "He'll grow out of it" ... "All kids act this way" ... "She just needs more discipline" ... "It's to be expected with 'fill-in-the-blank' -- autism, ADD, learning disabilities, child of divorce, family history".  These descriptions are often easier to accept than hearing your child has a mental health issue because it means your child is just like other kids (i.e. it's a phase or stage).  Or it's presumed that a mental health issue is just part and parcel of another diagnosis (e.g. autism).  Or that it's an issue that will resolve itself over time.  Plus anyone who hears the phrase mental health quickly makes the leap to the "other" phrase -- mental illness -- and this just pushes buttons no one wants pushed.

We can spend hours on our broken health care system which often covers weight loss programs but not mental health coverage, or provides for 15 counseling sessions a year when a child in crisis may require 15 sessions over three weeks.  But the point here is that we need to strip away the barriers to the word "mental" because ... until we begin to understand that mental health/illness is equal to medical health/illness ... until we begin to advocate for equality in our health care system regardless of the category of need ... and until we begin to push for early identification and intervention for our children, the phrase "mental health" will continue to wield the power that belongs with the resources and individuals who can help to close the gaping hole that is swallowing up so many of our children.

Help Our Children

Many people will be writing and speaking about the horror that happened in Connecticut in the morning hours of last Friday.  No words could possibly express the depth of my sorrow for these families -- it's beyond description.  The loss of these children is life-altering for any of us who are parents. Our children need help.  The young man who committed this massacre (and no need to mention him nor any diagnoses being tossed around) had been suffering for years.  Many children are.  No excuses but rather a wake-up call.

For the past 14 years, I've been working with parents of children with a host of hidden disabilities.  Children who have been struggling at school and home.  Children who have found themselves in psychiatric wards...involved with law enforcement...taken from their homes by their own parents who are no longer able to care for them.  Despite doing everything humanly possible to help them and often for months and years, they encounter obstacles, lack of access, limited resources...the list is endless.  Parents wear out but keep trying.  Or stop trying because they just can't do it any longer.  They are doing everything possible but often, it's not enough.  And the children suffer.

As a society, we must raise the volume of discussion about mental health issues.  But that's not enough.  We have to do everything possible to help parents access whatever supports are needed for their children.   A 7-year-old who is struggling becomes a 14-year-old who is struggling unless this child receives support, services, and whatever else is needed to help them.  It is our responsibility to ensure that this is a priority.

Many parents don't tell their stories.  They're afraid of rejection or disapproval.  They're afraid of what might happen to their children if people *knew* what was happening in their homes and lives.  I've heard countless numbers of these stories from parents with desperation in their eyes and voices.  And today I'm worried for the thousands of children and their parents for whom Asperger's Syndrome is part of their daily existence.

As we all grieve for this unspeakable tragedy and discuss gun control and mental health issues, we must also look around at the families and parents we know...at the children we know or love, and support them with everything we have so that these children -- regardless of their age -- have the chance to heal and be well.   I'm not naive enough to believe that everyone with a diagnosis can be healed, but I do know that many, many children and teenagers who are suffering and struggling *can* move from the darkness into the light if they are able to receive the supports they need.  Don't we owe this to all our children?  Please...we must help our children.