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Children Trapped by Gaps in Treatment of Mental Illness

by Robin F. Goodman, Ph.D.

"Children Trapped by Gaps in Treatment of Mental Illness" is on the front page of the New York Times, July 9, 2001. The problem isn't news - people paying attention to it is news. Six months ago Surgeon General David Satcher released his National Action Agenda on Children's Mental Health. The statistics are all around us: 1 in 10 children has a mental health problem but only 1 in 20 gets appropriately treated, 2 million adolescents suffer from depression, children with untreated attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder drop out of high school 10 times more than other children, anorexia and bulimia have the highest death rate of any childhood psychiatric illness, fewer than 10% of America's 80,000 public schools have comprehensive mental health services.

More children suffer from mental illness than from leukemia, diabetes, and AIDS combined. Mental illness can strike anyone's child - not just someone else's. Unrecognized and unaddressed, child and adolescent mental illness exacts a tremendous personal and societal toll.

The toll can be felt on all fronts. There are stories of insurance companies who don't authorize treatment recommended by psychiatrists, of parents who give up custody of their child so the child receives state funded services, of teachers who avoid suggestions of suicide in a students' composition, of kids who ostracize peers who are different or weak, and parents who think a child will out grow a problem. Similar to watching news reports about starving children or victims of war, it is easy to feel ashamed and overwhelmed - turning away because the solutions are not easy or obvious.

Closing the gap in mental health care requires changes in attitudes and development of resources by all who care for children - families, schools, communities, health care agencies, the government, and children themselves.

The National Action Agenda on Children's Mental Health includes the following goals:

  1. Promote public awareness of children's mental health issues and reduce stigma associated with mental illness.
  2. Continue to develop, disseminate, and implement scientifically-proven prevention and treatment services in the field of children's mental health.
  3. Improve the assessment and recognition of mental health needs in children.
  4. Eliminate racial/ethnic and socioeconomic disparities in access to mental healthcare.
  5. Improve the infrastructure for children's mental health services including support for scientifically-proven interventions across professions.
  6. Increase access to and coordination of quality mental healthcare services.
  7. Train frontline providers to recognize and manage mental health issues, and educate mental health providers in scientifically-proven prevention and treatment services
  8. Monitor the access to and coordination of quality mental healthcare services.

What parents and teacher can do to meet these goals?

  • Understand the warning signs of mental illness
  • If you are a parent: talk to your children about how they feel and how they are doing at home, at school, with friends. If you are concerned about your child's mental health: don't be afraid of a mental health check up.
  • If you are a teacher: be alert to potential problems and educate your students about mental illness
  • Get more information about child mental health in your area by contacting a local hospital, mental health professional or association

About the Authors

Robin F. Goodman, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist specializing in bereavement issues.

References and Related Books

Children Trapped by Gaps in Treatment of Mental Illness
C. Goldberg
NY Times July 9, 2001

Report of the Surgeon General's Conference on Children's Mental Health:
National Action Agenda on Children's Mental Health