Children's Mental Health: What it Looks Like

As a clinical psychologist, children’s mental health has dominated many of my discussions over the past decade. Sometimes these discussions start with a story about a relative’s son or daughter who has autism; others share about a friend in high school who struggled with substance abuse and addiction, a few have spoken of a close friend who committed suicide; for others the discussion begins with describing the behavioral challenges they are currently facing with their own son or daughter. Believe it or not, these varied scenarios make perfect sense, because when you discuss what children’s mental health actually is, it encompasses all these examples and much, much more. There is an enormous mental health need for our children and youth that is not being met nationally and here in Georgia. And those unmet needs can change the course of a child’s life.

Mental Health America’s 2015 report on the State of Mental Health in America indicates that 8% of Georgia’s children have a serious emotional disorder – that’s 91,000 children. The report further estimates that more than 85,000 children in Georgia have a mental health need and are not receiving support or treatment.

Did you know that: 30% of Georgia’s youth in the department of juvenile justice (DJJ) custody have a diagnosable disorder and receive ongoing treatment, and 70% of youth in contact with DJJ have a mental illness; suicide is the second leading cause of death for adolescents in our state and the youngest child to commit suicide in Georgia was 8-years-old.

Now it becomes clear why so many shout out about the crisis point we are in regarding children’s mental health, but struggle to figure out what to do about it. Policy makers and community leaders are challenged to determine where to allocate resources in the midst of a vast and wide ranging need. Providers become overwhelmed in their efforts to uphold sustainable business models in the middle of changing reimbursement practices. Education leaders struggle to balance the academic and social/emotional needs teachers face daily in the classroom. The good news is, people are talking about it and have the drive to do something about it. Legislators are responding to requests to investigate the issue more. State agency leaders are coming together with leading organizations in the field to brainstorm and develop creative, effective and efficient strategies. And, Voices is honored to contribute to many of these efforts – we’ve highlighted a few examples below to help you understand what children’s mental health looks like in Georgia and what are we doing about it!
Expanding School-based health centers and school-based mental health programs
Research has long told us there is a strong tie between students’ overall health and resilience and their academic achievement. A 2011 study in the Journal of Child Development revealed that school-based social and emotional learning programs improved the grades and standardized test scores of student participants by 11% compared to children who did not participate. Research also indicates that trauma or violence exposure is associated with lower grade point averages and lower school attendance – and specific interventions have been designed and demonstrated effective to provide support in schools, e.g., Cognitive Behavioral Intervention n Schools.
The Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities (DBHDD) in partnership with Voices, Parent Support Network, the Carter Center and Mental Health America Georgia is facilitating awareness actives during the week of Children’s Mental Health Day (May 7), including opportunities to learn more about the important link between education settings and behavioral health supports. Additionally, DBHDD is leading the Systems of Care Academy this July with an emphasis on ensuring all systems of care are represented, including educators and physicians in addition to mental and behavioral health providers. Voices is part of the Academy’s planning committee and is excited to report that a variety of workshop proposals that truly reflected a comprehensive “systems of care” were received.
Voices in partnership with the School-based Health Alliance has advocated successfully for a study committee on School-Based Health Centers to be enacted this legislative session, and we will continue to work to ensure the investigation includes mental and behavioral health needs.
Determining best practices for Pediatric behavioral health tele-health
Voices facilitated a panel discussion with state agency leaders, providers, and a national expert leading the efforts to establish national standards for children, around the dos and don’ts of tele-health with children. The Department of Juvenile Justice’s Chief Psychiatrist was amongst the panelists. Key lessons learned from the discussion will be utilized in the tele-health behavioral health workgroup led by the Department of Public Health. While the workgroup has just begin, it already demonstrates the positive momentum behind determining how to best utilize this practice to effectively meet the needs of some of our most vulnerable populations.

Educating about early childhood screeners and supports
Longitudinal research has shown that children’s adjustment in the first three years of life and later emotional health and social competence are significant predictors of academic achievement in elementary school. Voices continues to work with our partners including GEEARS and Georgia State’s Center for Healthy Child Development to better understand how to best utilize social/emotional screeners for young children and educate our colleagues within community organizations, hospitals and government agencies on the opportunities to consider to help increase the likelihood we could identify challenges and trauma exposure early and improve early intervention.