Mental health conditions are more common than cancer, diabetes and heart disease, affecting one-fourth of all Americans over the age of 18. But this isn’t a problem exclusive to adults. Studies show that half of all lifetime cases of a mental illness begin to develop before age 14, and one in five students between the ages of 13–18 live with a mental condition.
While some mental health conditions occur naturally, others are spawned out of a negative environment. The Child Advocacy Center here in Lincoln saw 1,092 children who experienced the types of abuses that negatively impact their mental health in 2016 alone. According to Lynn Ayers, executive director of the center, that number only reflects the cases that came to the attention of law enforcement and Department of Health and Human Services and met the criteria for a child forensic interview.
Whether or not the issue is naturally occurring or brought on by outside factors, a mental health issue can have profound effects when it comes to a child’s ability to learn. “The stress of dealing with trauma leaves many children struggling academically and falling behind their peers,” says Ayers.
“Anytime a child is distracted emotionally, it’s pretty hard to focus on anything concrete,” says Carly Runestad, Executive Director of Mourning Hope. “Trying to take in an educational program in school when you went to your mother’s funeral last week can be beyond distracting, and the same is true with any other mental health issue.”
Addressing mental conditions in schools is crucial to give struggling children the best opportunity to absorb material in the classroom, but this can prove difficult due to the stigmatization and low visibility of the issue.
According to the National Alliance of Mental Illness, the average time between the onset of symptoms of a mental illness and intervention is 8–10 years. The Child Advocacy Center’s website states that for every child they help, an additional nine children suffer in silence. Organizations in Lincoln aim to reduce these numbers.
“Whenever you can step in the preventative area before you see long term fallout is better for the child, family and community. When we can prevent mental health problems from developing so we don’t have to treat them later, that’s clearly a better choice,” says Runestad.
Ayers says that the longer kids suffer from mental illness or child neglect/abuse, the more difficult it is to intervene and reshape who they are. “Early intervention is important to children who have experienced maltreatment and who suffer from mental health issues, so they can recover and grow up to be healthy adults. We know that young children’s brains develop very fast and they are taking things in everyday that either have a positive or negative affect on them.”
Like so many other issues, positive change often starts in the home, as parents and guardians have an unequaled influence on their children’s development. It’s important for parents to ask for help when they need it as soon as the issue reveals itself. And in a city like Lincoln, there is no shortage of places or people to turn to. “Don’t wait,” says Runestad. “Lincoln is so rich in our diverse services that we can provide and there is always someone out there who can help.”
United Way currently provides support for three programs delivering behavioral health services to children and youth. These services are integrated into school-based and community organizations with a focus on intervention and prevention of adverse childhood experiences.
“When adverse childhood experiences, or trauma, have been experienced, early intervention is crucial to the best long term recovery for these kids,” said Wende Baker, senior director of Community Impact for United Way. “The prevention of harm, while more complex and challenging, is a goal we continue to embrace.”
Ayers adds, “Know that there is help available and there are people who will not judge you or make you feel guilty, people who really just want what’s best for your child and family.”