By Darcy Gruttadaro, Director of the NAMI Child and Adolescent Action Center
Half of all mental illness begins by age 14. Many people do not know that. They also do not know
that, on average, eight to 10 years will pass from
the onset of symptoms to the time of intervention
for those living with these conditions. In the life of a child, those are critical developmental years.
When children and youth living with mental illness have access to effective services and supports, they can develop close relationships with family and friends, learn to cope with challenging symptoms and gain the educational and social experiences they need to succeed in life.
This week, as we observe National Children's Mental Health Awareness Day (May 9), there are two ways we can work to close the gap.
First, is by getting schools involved in helping to identify struggling students and linking them with effective services. Second, is getting primary care providers involved.
Let’s start with schools. Children spend about six hours a day in school. They often exhibit the first warning signs of mental health concerns while in school. Unfortunately, most of these children are not identified early and linked with services. Schools need more information about the early warning signs of mental illness, how to talk with families and how to help. For this reason, NAMI developed Parents and Teachers as Allies, an in-service education program that covers these topics. This program has been popular with many schools and gets them interested in learning more about children’s mental health. Please consider bringing it to your community. The booklet that accompanies the in-service program is also extremely popular with schools. So even if your school is not ready for the in-service program, please consider at least sharing the booklet to get the conversation started.
Primary care providers, such as pediatricians and family doctors, are also natural allies in helping to close the gap. They see most children starting at a very young age and then over a number of years for well-child visits, vaccinations, illness, sports physicals and more. Primary care providers also are increasingly playing a role in addressing the mental health needs of children and youth because of the critical shortage of children’s mental health professionals.
But more can be done to get them involved.
NAMI has talked with families about their experiences with primary care providers. In a national survey, they shared recommendations on how to make primary care offices more welcoming to conversations about mental health concerns and how to start these conversations. This led to the creation of resources for primary care providers, including the publication of A Family Guide: Integrating Mental Health and Pediatric Primary Care. Please consider sharing these resources with pediatric and family practice offices in your community. Emphasize the importance of primary care professionals making a commitment to identifying children and youth who may be struggling with an emerging mental illness.
To observe National Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day, let’s make a commitment to close the gap so that children and youth with emerging mental illness can be identified early and linked with the services and supports they need to get a healthy start in life.