Guest columnist Alice Barber: Youth mental health needs our attention

Guest columnist Alice Barber: Youth mental health needs our attention

Posted: 11/27/2022 5:29:10 PM

Modified: 11/27/2022 5:26:45 PM

December 7, 2022 marks the one year anniversary of the Surgeon General’s advice alerting us to the crisis in young people’s mental health. According to Dr. Vivek Murthy’s statement, “advisories are reserved for significant public health challenges that require the nation’s immediate awareness and action.” He further called for “a rapid and coordinated response to this crisis…”

Last year, before the notice was published, several colleagues and I got together to start writing an op-ed on this very crisis, but predictably we got too busy to finish the short article. ; we had too many customers to see. We intended to come back to it, to find an hour here or there to put pen to paper. But what has become abundantly clear is that the crisis is not just about our children, but about those of us who could help them.

There aren’t enough of us trained to help children and adolescents deal with their mental health issues and so those of us who have that training take on one more child, then another, then a other. The appeals from parents are desperate and heartbreaking. There is terror in the voice of the mother who calls and says, “I’ve called all the numbers I’ve been given and no one is taking new clients. His terror isn’t about learning gaps and MCAS scores; her terror concerns the potential suicide of her child. All learning ends if a child dies. If the number of calls I receive is any indication, I estimate that these types of calls to community mental health agencies and other community practitioners in the catchment area of ​​this opinion number number in the thousands. . If we have time, we take the calls and tell the parent there is no room for their child, while wondering if we can fit just one more client into an already overwhelmed workload. The CDC (2018) ranks suicide as the second leading cause of death among children ages 10-14. A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (2017) identifies suicide as the eighth leading cause of death among children aged 5 to 11.

The youth mental health crisis is not just one thing. It’s not about wearing a mask, it’s not about TikTok. It is about the convergence of mental health vulnerabilities in our children (many of whom were present at birth) with external events which may include abuse, neglect, oppression, community violence, risk of violence in school, poverty, family deaths, family stress, substance abuse, climate change (it may be surprising to hear many of my young children talk about this), political unrest (yes, they know what is happening) and, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic. Anxiety and depression in our children are endemic. Trauma in our children is endemic. Teachers tell me they feel like they’re running mental health programs in their classrooms while simultaneously trying to teach.

When I bring up this subject – as I often do – I am invariably greeted with a well-meaning comment about how adults also struggle with mental health issues. Yes. They are. But a child’s voice is rarely at the center of this discussion, and there are many more therapists who are trained and willing to see adults. “Children are resilient” is also often something well-meaning adults say. However, this is shortsighted because resilience is not something we are born with; it is something that is built over time. We (hopefully) become more resilient as we age. Our children are not as resilient as this saying would have us believe and repeating this is an escape route to discussing other, easier things. Our children are not so much resilient as malleable. They bend to adapt to whatever is thrown at them. A containment exercise, images of political insurrection, the melting of the ice caps. The problem with bending over to face adversity head-on is that it exhausts the child whose brain won’t reach maturity until their twenties.

Several of my current child clients are doing better. Better enough to reduce therapy sessions to once a month or to drop treatment altogether. These are the ones who have had predictable and consistent support, especially during the COVID-19 quarantine. They are the lucky ones. Others are in almost constant crisis. And the parents of these children feel alone and desperate.

I don’t know the ultimate answer to the question: what do we do about it? Most of the responses are systemic. Some of the answers have to do with insurance companies. Some have to do with student loans. Some have to do with graduate programs. Some have to do with the economy, access to food, housing, security. Some have to do with racism, homophobia, transphobia. Some relate to a better general understanding of child development, behavior, trauma and the brain. All have to do with a child’s access to quality care.

Explicitly, I ask the local media to spend time on this subject. Talk about that. Our children let us know that they are not well. Acknowledging the problem is often a solid first step. Print resource articles. Interview Providers. Interview parents and guardians. Raise the real voice of children in our community and what they think of themselves, their friends, their schools, their families. It is from listening and understanding that solutions begin to emerge. Use December 7 of this year, one year later, to remind us of the pandemic within the pandemic – our children’s mental health.

Alice Barber lives in Easthampton and has been a local child therapist for over 25 years. She is the author of “Blue Butterfly Open: Moments from a Child Psychotherapy Practice” and consults with schools on trauma-informed care.

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