Local Commentary

Guest Commentary: We Can Help Improve the Mental Well-Being of Americans

By Debra Z. Roth

What do you do when you see a child you don’t know moping alone on his or her front porch? What about a student being bullied at school ― who needs help, the student or the bully?

Both.

National Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day is May 10 this year and the Falls Church City Council recognized the commemoration with a proclamation this week noting some hard facts released by the U.S. government:

• Nearly one in five children is dealing with a diagnosable mental health condition.

• Almost half of all teens will be struck by a mental health condition.

• Only half of our youth receive mental health treatment due to barriers, including stigma, cost, and a lack of providers.

And Falls Church City, despite its status as an oasis of high income, a highly educated populace, one of the best school systems in the United States, and recently, as the healthiest city in the country, faces hurdles to mental health treatment, too.

The price we pay is steep. Mass shootings plague our country, an epidemic we strive to stop by tightening gun laws. We can, however, also don a cloak of compassion and try and figure out why so many are so sick, so desperate, so lost. We will never be able to cure all, but we can do better.

The earlier we start, the greater chance we have of saving a child before it’s too late. And the challenge is not just for those with the most complicated illnesses — many of the people you see every day are managing through the use of antidepressants. According to a recent article in Time Magazine, that number has jumped in the past few years.

Half of adult mental illness begins before the age of 14 and three-fourths before age 24. More than 40 percent of youth ages 13 to 17 have experienced a behavioral health problem by the time they reach seventh grade. In addition, suicide is the third leading cause of death among youth ages 15 to 24.
Compared with their peers, children and youth with mental health issues are more likely to experience homelessness, be arrested, drop out of school, and be underemployed. Compared to all other chronic health conditions, mental disorders produce the greatest disability impact within this age group. And youth transitioning into adulthood have some of the highest rates of alcohol and substance abuse.

Raising awareness about the importance of mental health for children is a key part of overall development from birth. Awareness Day is an opportunity for us to celebrate the positive impact that we can have on the lives of children, youth, and young adults when we are able to integrate positive mental health into every environment.

This year’s theme is Partnering for Health and Hope Following Trauma. Falls Church City is fortunate in that the Aurora House Girls’ Group Home is certified in trauma informed care.

Appropriate prevention, early intervention, and treatment services are necessary to deal with behavioral health issues including emerging mental health and substance use issues. As we have dealt with the City budget this year, tremendous challenges have come before us. We want a psychologist for the schools, affordable housing to welcome diversity and see to all our needs, and more. We want the best for all our citizens and to actualize more of our values: a community based on a caring, inclusive, holistic nature. We should applaud ourselves for that mission. And we can get there as we raise our revenue. We can continue to thrive as a “little city” and we can propel higher as a sophisticated locale that develops innovative ways to ever improve our health, our well-being, while we prime our children from the start for full, productive, and satisfying lives.

How do we do that while we are building these systems? By offering Mental Health First Aid training, continuing to support our Community Services Board and its providing same day assessments and intensive care, spreading the word about a new National Alliance on Mental Health short-term behavioral health services to help families connect quickly to help, and by standing up when we see someone in need, we will move strides ahead in meeting mental illness head on. Whether you see a child crying in a corner or a parent looking frustrated, reach out. Our local police can help. A teacher can make a connection. And just your saying hello and offering a smile can be the panacea that leads that child or parent to take a new step: a step toward a healing, healthy, happy life.

 


Debra Z. Roth is a member of the Falls Church City Human Services Advisory Council and directs a number of public health education programs in the Washington, D.C. area.