By Rep. Tana Senn, guest commentator
Every day I hear stories about young people struggling with mental illness. These children, whose biggest worry should be whether they finished their homework, are silently burdened, with few resources to turn to for help. Far too often, interventions and support come too late and another child is lost to mental illness.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Most mental disorders follow a developmental course that typically starts early in life, with more than half of all adult mental health problems beginning before the age of 14. If we can connect children and their families to services early on, we can make a significant difference in the overall mental health picture in our state.
One barrier to accessing mental health is stigma. Too many fear that seeking treatment will lead to judgment or negative repercussions. Part of the solution must be to recognize that mental health issues affect people in all communities, including our own.
During a particularly difficult period for my family, where, in a thirteen-month period, we lost my mom, dad and grandma. My kids struggled. It was hard on me, but it was devastating for my kids. They were sad, and worried, that another beloved family member might die.
Although dealing with death is never easy, my kids were fortunate to have school counselors who helped them learn tools to cope with grief.
This attention to their mental health was critical for them to get back to being kids. But far too many kids don’t have regular access to school counselors, mental health services, or a safe and stable home.
What many children experience is a far more extreme trauma than the death of an elderly family member: Witnessing domestic violence. Becoming homeless. Having a parent incarcerated or killed. Being sexually abused.
These adverse childhood experiences, or ACEs, can lead to depression, aggression and other behavioral and health issues. Imagine for a moment that you’re a 12-year-old kid. Your mom has been incarcerated, your abusive father is absent, and now you and your siblings have to move in with a different relative and go to a new school. How does a 12 year old with limited access to mental health services handle these traumatic and stressful events? Studies show that the more ACEs a child has, the higher the likelihood they will be diagnosed with a mental illness as an adult.
When children don’t have the services or tools they need to address their mental health, they are significantly more likely to drop out of high school, suffer from mental health problems as adults and be involved in the criminal justice system.
This should come as no surprise since extensive research shows that early experiences shape how the brain is built. We know that reaching kids early helps them develop healthy brain architecture and build a strong foundation for mental wellbeing.
This past year, the State Legislature convened a Children’s Mental Health Workgroup to look at gaps, barriers and opportunities to improve kids mental health services and access.
It rapidly became clear that we need to meet children ‘where they are,’ whether it is in the doctor’s office or the school building. The need for additional mental health professionals, as well as ensuring services are culturally and linguistically appropriate, also emerged as priorities.
Many of the recommendations of the workgroup were captured in House Bill 1713 currently before the legislature. From screening new moms and teens for depression to expanding telemedicine and school mental health resources, the legislation seeks to build capacity for addressing children’s mental health.
With our emergency rooms, jails, mental hospitals and underpasses overflowing with adults needing mental health treatment, isn’t it time to start addressing these issues further upstream?
Tana Senn is the State Representative from the 41 st Legislative District and chaired the Children’s Mental Health Workgroup.