by: JoAnne Loper, Director of Parent Education, Tuesday’s Child
B4Stage4 – A movement to identify mental health issues early
As spring weather swirls around us – rain, wind and thunderstorms – I watch my adult son anxiously read and re-read weather reports. He has OCD and weather – specifically wind – is his nemesis.
His anxiety developed in early elementary school. His adversary then was a dinosaur – T-Rex. Under the cover of darkness the rattling of our 100 year old house as a truck lumbered by sent him into a panic. In his mind only a rampaging T-Rex could shake our home.
Fortunately, we recognized his fears were extreme, and sought help. Medication, therapy and school support helped him access the tools he needed to win over the intrusive thoughts.
Early identification of children with early onset mental illness is fundamental to their future success. Lack of treatment and identification can lead to greater problems including school failure, substance abuse and poverty in adulthood. No other illnesses affect so many children so seriously. National Advisory Mental Health Council Workgroup on Child and Adolescent Mental Health Intervention and Deployment (2001).
One-half of all lifetime diagnosable mental health conditions begin by the age of 14 (Kessler, Berglund, Demler, Jin, Merikangas, & Walters, 2005). One in five adolescents in this country shows significant symptoms of emotional distress, with nearly 10% having symptoms that impair everyday functioning (Knopf, Park, & Mulye, 2008).
Traditionally, family is the primary support of a child’s mental health. However, with the increased stress and demands of everyday life, it is imperative that schools partner with parents to help children thrive.
Schools often function as first responders in attending to children will mental health issues. A growing body of evidence suggests that effective school mental health programs improve educational outcomes by fostering social-emotional skills and identifying mental health problems early.
Schools are a natural place to deliver mental health supports. Nearly every community has a school and most kids spend at least six hours a day there. Students, families, and the community benefit when schools meet the needs of the whole child by promoting social-emotional skills and identifying and treating mental health problems early.
There are many ways a school can support a child’s mental health. They can provide a school setting that supports self-esteem and respect for others; programs targeting specifics issues and skill building for bullying prevention, conflict resolution and promoting social skills; and have the staff to provide continuing mental health services to children with learning disabilities, depression, and those affected by grief and trauma.
Mental health is not just the absence of mental illness; it is also having the skills to deal with what comes our way in life. Early on my son learned he could not control the weather but he could control his environment – akin to flipping up umbrella when it rains, he secures down the patio furniture, and checks the batteries on flashlights and portable radios when the isobars squeeze together and threaten high winds.
The most cost effective time to intervene is in the early years when social emotional learning is most effective. By moderating the development of psychopathology in children and youth, early prevention interventions can be more effective and less costly than remedial interventions (Kaplan, 2000).
Schools and communities should be motivated by the B4Stage4 philosophy – mental health conditions should be treated long before they reach the most critical points in the disease process.
Like a cough, the early symptoms of mental illness may not seem serious; sleeplessness, irritability feeling low or anxious. It can take years to get a correct diagnosis and appropriate treatment. Without early identification and intervention we lose the years when most people have supports that help them be successful – home, family and school.