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Childhood Revealed: Insights Into Mental Illness


As seen in November 1999 EDUCATION UPDATE

Refrigerator doors throughout the United States are covered with children's artwork. Parents, grandparents and neighbors "ooh" and "aah" over the innocence, creativity and beauty of the work.

The ten million children and teenagers in the United States who suffer from psychiatric disorders also create pictures and enjoy making art. Their remarkable artwork is beautiful, disturbing at times, and naturally, some of it is very childlike. The art portrayed in Childhood Revealed: Art Expressing Pain, Discovery and Hope (Abrams, 1999), a new book and traveling exhibit of art, was created by children with psychiatric disorders. These artworks have been produced by children suffering from such conditions as Depression, Anxiety, Attention-Deficit Disorder and Autism. Frequently these children suffer silently and go unrecognized, undiagnosed and untreated. This book and exhibit are a call to action for America to pay attention to children with mental illness.

The original Childhood Revealed pieces of art will be on display in eight U.S. cities after their debut on November 1st at the Whitney Museum of American Art and an appearance at 10 Rockefeller Plaza in New York City from November 3rd to December 3rd. An educational guide to the show is available at This guide can help parents and teachers educate children about childhood mental disorders by using the artwork as a springboard for discussion.

The good news is that children and adolescents at risk for mental illness can be identified and treated. The bad news is that the stigma surrounding psychiatric illness prevents timely identification and treatment of children with mental health problems. For the most part, schools and parents ignore psychiatric symptoms and clinical services frequently are not available. Fewer than ten percent of America's 80,000 public schools have comprehensive mental health services. A recent study found that only eleven percent of students referred for mental health consultation in a community clinic ever made it to their first appointment. But more than 90 percent made it if there was a mental health clinic in their school.

The psychiatric illnesses suffered by children are real. At least two million teenagers suffer from depression. In fact, more children suffer from psychiatric illness than from leukemia, diabetes and AIDS combined. Most will not hurt anyone, but they are all suffering, and many are at risk for hurting others and themselves. When psychiatric illness is left undetected, undiagnosed and untreated it can endanger the children themselves and many others. The tragedies of Littleton and other events of school violence, academic failure, substance abuse and school dropout result from untreated childhood mental illness. These children deserve the same thorough diagnosis and opportunity for treatment as those suffering physical symptoms.

Every child deserves to feel good about herself. When we put artwork up for display on our refrigerator door, we are telling a child we are proud and think well of her. Childhood Revealed: Art Expressing Pain, Discovery and Hope was created to acknowledge our care and support of children and teenagers with psychiatric disorders.

President Clinton has proclaimed that this November is Child Mental Health Month. Although children's physical symptoms are often easy to identify and pay attention to, psychiatric symptoms are more common but often ignored. This month, every teacher, parent, school nurse and pediatrician can start paying attention to the signs and symptoms of childhood mental disorders by asking children these four important questions:

  1. How are you getting along at school, with your friends, and with your family?
  2. Do you find it hard to follow rules, listen, control your anger or get along with others?
  3. Are there times when you feel sad, down or nervous, or feel like you're not good enough?
  4. Is there anything you'd like to change about yourself?

If we all start with just these four questions, we take the first step toward a national dialogue about the important issue of child mental health.