by Brenda Haas, LMSW, Ed.M
Why is children’s mental health shrouded with stigma and shame? If a child has diabetes we take them to get their insulin, and if they have asthma, we get them an inhaler. Childhood mental illness is real and very common. The National Institute for Mental Health reports that one out of five children in the U.S. suffers from a mental health disorder. Suicide is now the second leading cause of death in youth ages 15-24. In fact, half of all psychiatric illnesses occur before the age of 14, and 75 percent by the age of 24. According the World Health Organization, mental illness is the number one disability in the world. Yet somehow, many still find it more acceptable to get treatment for other significant illnesses than for a mental health disorder.
For far too long, families of children with a mental health disorder have hidden in the shadows of the fear and shame, not seeking proper care for their child’s mental health concerns. The stigma of seeking help too often creates a barrier many can’t overcome.
May is National Mental Health Awareness Month, and a great time to shine the light on what is needed to overcome stigma and find help, healing, and hope. WJCS is dedicated to focusing attention on child and adolescent mental health, and the opportunity to transform the lives of thousands of children and families in our county through education, early intervention, and identification of mental health challenges. It is essential for parents, caregivers, and educators to become aware and address the first warning signs, including mood changes, intense feelings, difficulty concentrating, sleep irregularities, behavior changes, unexplained weight loss, substance abuse, and physical harm.
The good news: there are new, very effective interventions and treatments available. There is hope for the millions of children and youth living with mental illness and their families. Current research shows that many emotional and behavioral disorders can be mitigated if identified and treated early in childhood and adolescence. WJCS provides programs and services for children, youth, and families, which address mental health literacy and enhance community awareness.
One of WJCS’ key initiatives is offering Youth Mental Health First Aid (YMHFA) trainings throughout Westchester County to educators, sports coaches, camp staff, first responders, parents, and any youth-centered organization. YMHFA is a nationally recognized, evidence-based certification course that teaches warning signs and risk factors of various mental health challenges common among adolescents and ways to deal with them until professional help is available. YMHFA, like CPR, teaches how to be a first responder for a mental health challenge or crisis. The goal is for individuals to be as well-versed in how to handle a youth’s panic attack as they would be applying pressure to a wound.
Community conversations about mental health are happening throughout the county more than ever, and many are youth-driven. The students of Schechter Westchester, partnered with WJCS, to coordinate a full-day “Open Minds Summit,” a community event with one goal to de-stigmatize mental illness. Over 600 students, parents and staff attended the event, an important beginning to help raise awareness about mental health, Not only in May, but every day, children, youth and adults must no longer hide in the shadows of shame and fear of judgment, but rather bloom in the light of appropriate care, acceptance, awareness, and hope.
Brenda P. Haas, LMSW, Ed.M is the Coordinator of WJCS GPS (Guiding Parents Through Services), a services of Partners in Caring, and Partners in Schools Consultant at Schechter Westchester. firstname.lastname@example.org