"There is now compelling evidence that mental illnesses in children do occur, that untreated mental illness places children at risk of developing the most debilitating forms of illness, and that the impact of untreated mental illness on their growing years is devastating. When children have neurobiological symptoms that they cannot control, childhood becomes a painful ordeal. All the building blocks children need to prepare themselves for adulthood are kicked out from under them. Many of their symptoms cause poor functioning in school; they fall behind, can't compete, fail. Behaviors driven by their symptoms are unpleasant and irritating; they become lightening rods for criticism, ridicule, and rejection. In the starkest sense, untreated mental illness is a thief of childhood. It steals away every benefit this precious span of development confers on growing children." Taken from Parents and Teachers as Allies, Recognizing Early-onset Mental Illness in Children and Adolescents, National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), September 2008.
How does one go about accessing mental health services for a child? When should help be sought? Where does a parent or other concerned adult find the help a child may need?
A good starting point, in our area, is to call the Crisis Line at 218-828-HELP (4357) or Bridges of Hope at 218-825-7682, or contact a Family Service Worker at your child's school.. They can provide connections to resources appropriate for a child and family's unique needs. Determining if professional help for a child is necessary isn't always easy. Crisis Line and Bridges of Hope staff can also help to evaluate that question. One rule of thumb, though, is to trust what you believe about a child needing help, and follow through accordingly.
The following examples of others in the community who have sought help and support may illustrate the process of accessing services.
Olivia's mother was concerned about her. Olivia seemed depressed and indicated during an argument that she wanted to die. Olivia's mom knew her daughter had made superficial cuts on her wrists in the past, and had noticed that Olivia was doing this again. When she asked Olivia about it, Olivia said it "wasn't a big deal," and her friends also cut themselves and talked about wanting to die.
Olivia's mom called Bridges of Hope (BoH). She was concerned for her daughter, but was also concerned because they had no insurance due to the high premium cost offered through her employer. A BoH staff member contacted a local therapist who offered a sliding fee for services, and Olivia met with the therapist later that same day. Bridges of Hope was also able to connect the family with resources to cover payment for additional therapy sessions.
Upon follow-up, Olivia's mother expressed appreciation for the immediate help and support BoH staff provided, and said the connection to the local therapist couldn't have been more perfect. The therapist helped Olivia with her grief issues about her father's chemical dependency and his absence.
Jim called BoH about his 14-year-old child who had been evaluated the evening before for suicide and depression at the emergency room. The hospital had sent the child home with recommendations that she be seen by a local mental health provider as soon as possible. BoH was able to get the child seen that day, and provide the father with additional resources for on-going support.
Younger children can also have emotional and mental health problems, which can affect their functioning at home, in school, in child care settings, and in the community. And they can give us a variety of signals that something is wrong. Those signals may include: moodiness, excessive irritability, lack of interest in things, withdrawal from others, hopelessness, repeated thoughts about death, repeated aggression and/or outbursts, compulsive behaviors, chronic low self-esteem, acts of self-harm, high-risk behaviors, anxiety, sadness, hyperactivity, grandiose ideas, great sensitivity to physical sensations and temperatures, inappropriate expression of emotion, fears that impede functioning, lack of eye contact, and eating or sleeping difficulties.
A variety of services in addition to counseling/therapy are available for children, depending on their individual needs, including:
Mental health evaluations (birth to age 21).
Mental health services in schools.
Children's crisis services.
Respite care for families.
Children's mental health case management.
Support, education, and information for the child and family.
It may take repeated attempts to find services that make a difference, but effective help is available. Getting connected to the right resources for your child and family sometimes calls for determined effort, through what can seem like a maze of a system. But research shows that the earlier an appropriate intervention takes place, the more effective it will be, and the better the outcome, thereby averting unnecessary personal struggle for a child as well as family crises.
Many local agencies gather monthly at the Local Advisory Council on Children's Mental Health to network and collaborate on services and supports in our community for children and families. If you are interested in becoming involved, call Holly Biggins at 218-820-5327.
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