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Mental Illness: Its Huge Impact on our Children

Shaun Kerry, M.D.
Diplomate, American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology

According to research by the University of Washington, mental illness is now the leading reason for hospitalization of people between the ages of 5 and 19.

Over the past decade, the most dramatic growth in hospitalizations has occurred among the population of younger school-aged children.  They suffer mostly from depression and disruptive behavioral problems, such as oppositional defiance and conduct disorder.

According to mental health experts, the families of these children have inadequate health insurance, which does not provide coverage for the intensive counseling and therapy that is often needed by these troubled youths.  As a last resort, many of these children are taken to emergency rooms.  "This is a call for us to respond to children's unmet mental health needs," said Sheri Hill, a developmental psychologist who helped direct the University of Washington's annual State of Washington's Kids research effort. "We can no longer ignore this problem."

Not treating mental illnesses in children until they reach the crisis stage has ramifications far beyond the emergency room.  According to Susan Maney, clinical director of the Children's Home Society Cobb Center, which provides mental health treatment for children, neglecting mental illness in young people negatively affects schools, neighborhoods, and even leads to the break-up of families.

In 1999, a total of 2,800 children in the state of Washington were hospitalized with mental health concerns.  Depressive disorders account for 46 % of the mental illnesses seen in children ages 5 to 14, and an astounding 67 % in the teen population ages 15 to 19; making depression by far the most prevalent mental illness affecting young people in the state of Washington.

Depression manifests itself differently in children than it does in adults, Maney said.  She further added that children are likely to become withdrawn, have difficulty relating to their playmates or parents, do poorly in school, or have trouble getting out of bed.

Mike Fitzpatrick, the Northwest regional director of the Children's Home Society, said that even families who currently have health coverage are allowed only a limited amount of counseling.  Due to a shortage of child psychologists and a lack of other mental health services, families often face long lapses of time between therapy sessions and see few results.

According to Fitzpatrick, it's often not until after children act out in some violent or dramatic way - hurting a sibling, injuring a schoolmate, or harming themselves - that they are taken to the hospital to receive the intensive treatment that they require.  Furthermore, he stated that, "As mental health resources in our local system have gotten more scarce, children have had to have a pretty severe diagnosis to get any type of service."

As a society, we have our priorities disordered.  Our present educational system is in a state of crisis. The root cause of this crisis is not fiscal, but rather, ideological.  Academic subjects and test scores are being given precedence over the mental health of the student, his worth as a human being, and his ability to earn a living upon graduation.


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