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Why we focus on children’s mental health

Childhood is a time of tremendous growth and development, both physically and mentally. What does good mental health mean for children? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it’s reaching developmental and emotional milestones, learning healthy social skills and how to cope when there are problems.

In contrast, the CDC describes children’s mental health disorders as serious changes in the way kids typically learn, behave or handle their emotions, resulting in distress and problems getting through the day. Some common examples are attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), anxiety and behavior disorders. These often begin in early childhood and can affect lifelong health and well-being. Children with these disorders face challenges at home, school and with friends. If not addressed, mental health disorders can lead to hospitalizations, residential treatment and juvenile delinquency placements.

St. Louis County social workers, public health nurses and other staff work with children and families with mental health and/or substance use disorders. Addressing children’s mental health needs is a serious problem affecting every segment of our county. Disorders affect boys and girls of all ages, ethnic and racial backgrounds, and living in all regions of our county.

At the same time, we can’t ignore the effects of poverty on children’s mental health. Children from low-income families have disproportionately higher rates of mental health disorders. These kids are more likely to be dealing with stress from neglect, hunger and other adverse childhood experiences which affects their developing brain.

This is a real issue in St. Louis County when you consider these statistics: 19.9 percent of children are living in poverty, 40.7 percent of students qualify for free or reduced priced lunches and 23.6 percent of mothers and children are receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits. All of these numbers are higher than the state average.

Research has shown that, nationwide, as many as one in five children experience a serious emotional disturbance in a year. That means in St. Louis County, home to 39,000 children (2014 numbers), as many as 7,800 kids experienced a serious emotional disturbance in the last year. And that’s just in our county. These are kids in our neighborhoods and schools. These are kids who are our county’s future.

When a child has a mental health disorder, it affects far more than just the child. The child’s caregivers also feel the impact, often struggling with increased stress and finding and maintaining employment.

Here’s the good news: with early and effective treatment, children can overcome mental health conditions and lead healthy and happy childhoods. This is why we are working with community partners to find solutions as well as advocating at the state level for more comprehensive, coordinated mental health services.

Here’s the not so good news: Only about half of the children who have experienced a serious emotional disturbance receive treatment to help them deal with these issues, primarily due to inability to pay the cost for this care.

Partnerships are needed to integrate behavioral health with primary care for children. Research has shown this helps families access the services they need, and children and youth show measureable improvements in their behavioral and emotional health and in their academic performance.

In 2016, our Children and Family Services staff worked with 7,058 children. While much attention focuses on our role in child protection, St. Louis County staff works proactively with families and children, and also directly with children needing mental health treatment, offering support programs that address underlying challenges such as mental health, and to prevent out-of-home placements. Last year alone we served 268 families through child welfare programs, 132 families for parent support outreach and 97 families for children’s mental health case management.

This past Thursday was Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day, both nationally and in St. Louis County. The County Board’s proclamation summarized why we cannot ignore this situation: “Addressing the complex mental health needs of children, youth and families today is fundamental to the future of St. Louis County.”

Dana Kazel is the communications manager at St. Louis County.

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