Why Is Children’s Mental Health Important?
Mental health — an essential part of children’s overall health — has a complex interactive relationship with their physical health and their ability to succeed in school, at work and in society. Both physical and mental health affect how we think, feel and act on the inside and outside.
For instance, an overweight young boy who is teased about his weight may withdraw socially and become depressed and may be reluctant to play with others or exercise, which further contributes to his poorer physical health and as a result poorer mental health. These issues have long-term implications on the ability of children and youth to fulfill their potential as well as consequences for the health, education, labor and criminal justice systems of our society.
For instance, a boy named Bobby is being physically abused by his father and often acts out aggressively at school. His behavior is a natural reaction to the abuse, but his behavior may also mark the beginning of undiagnosed conduct disorder. His teachers simply see him as a troublemaker and continually punish his behavior. Later, Bobby drops out of school as a teenager because he finds it a harsh and unwelcoming environment and is anxious to leave his abusive home and fend for himself. However, holding down a job is difficult because Bobby often clashes with his coworkers and supervisors due to his aggression. Bobby has also begun to self-medicate by abusing alcohol and has been arrested a number of times for drunken disorderliness. By the time Bobby finally receives a proper diagnosis of his conduct disorder and substance abuse, he is in his thirties and his mental health problems have become deeply entrenched. They will require extensive therapy, which Bobby probably cannot afford without a job that provides adequate health insurance. Things could have been very different if Bobby was referred to a psychologist in his childhood who could have diagnosed him, offered effective treatment, and alerted the authorities about the abuse.
All children and youth have the right to happy and healthy lives and deserve access to effective care to prevent or treat any mental health problems that they may develop. However, there is a tremendous amount of unmet need, and health disparities are particularly pronounced for children and youth living in low-income communities, ethnic minority youth or those with special needs.
How Many Children Have Mental Health Disorders?
An estimated 15 million of our nation’s young people can currently be diagnosed with a mental health disorder. Many more are at risk of developing a disorder due to risk factors in their biology or genetics; within their families, schools, and communities; and among their peers. There is a great need for mental health professionals to provide the best available care based on scientific evidence, good clinical expertise, and that takes into account the unique characteristics of the child or adolescent. However, it is estimated that only about 7 percent of these youth who need services receive appropriate help from mental health professionals (Dept of Health and Human Services, 2001 — Report of the Surgeon General’s Conference on Children’s Mental Health: A National Action Agenda).
What Does Psychology Have to Offer?
Research in psychology has contributed to the development of more effective treatment and prevention of mental health disorders in children, youth, and families, including programs targeting expectant mothers, children in school settings, and youth transitioning into adulthood and programs working at the following levels:
- Individual — e.g., therapy or counseling for those with mental health disorders
- Peer — e.g., peer-assisted learning programs aimed at improving reading, math, and science
- Family — e.g., parent education on the needs of children at each stage of development
- School — e.g., strategies for teachers for effective classroom management
- Community — e.g., violence prevention programs administered through community/recreational centers or churches
- Systemic — e.g., coordination of services in the health, juvenile justice, education, and child protection systems.
Psychologists working with children and youth are also trained to take into account developmental considerations on:
- Cognitive and
- Biological bases.
Culture, ethnicity and language also mediates the behavior of children and adolescents in numerous ways and as a result affects the methods of prevention and treatment of mental health disorders.
Psychologists have developed tools to assess the risk and protective factors for the mental health of children and youth, to test them for behavioral or emotional problems, and to continually monitor treatment progress.
Psychologists have also designed programs that effectively engage families, schools and communities, that is, the critical social supports that can guarantee lasting well-being for children and youth. For example, one successful family-centered program aimed at decreasing alcohol use in preteens engages parents and caregivers by training them on parenting skills such as setting limits, expressing clear expectations about substance abuse, communication and discipline while also simultaneously training youth on resistance skills and how to develop negative attitudes toward alcohol.
How Does One Find a Psychologist for Children and Youth?
Psychologists working with children and youth can be found in many settings:
- In schools
- In community health centers
- In hospitals working in partnership with pediatricians and psychiatrists
- In research centers
- In private practice