National awareness month every May opens with first week focusing on children
(May 31, 2019) With psychological problems affecting roughly 20 percent of children, Worcester County health officials are striving to eliminate the stigma associated with mental health issues to help young people address problems so they don’t fester into adulthood.
For the past three decades, National Children’s Mental Health Week has kicked off the annual National Mental Health Awareness Month, which has been marked each May since 1949.
Local Behavioral Health Authority Director Jessica Sexauer discussed efforts to highlight school-based resources available for Worcester County students.
“One in five youths have a diagnosable disorder,” she said.
Based on data collected in the Community Health Assessment and the Youth Risk Behavior Survey, Sexauer said more middle school and high students are reporting problems such as anxiety, bullying or feelings of hopelessness.
“There has been an increase of them feeling hopeless or sad,” she said.
While just shy of a thousand youths accessed services in fiscal year 2017, that figure grew to more than 1,400 the following year, Sexauer said.
An increasing number of respondents have also admitted to experiencing suicidal emotions but typically without plans to act on those feelings, Sexauer said.
Lauren Williams, Worcester County Health Department social work supervisor, works with teachers, guidance counselors and school administrators, to provide school-based wellness therapy.
“They are the front line for kids that they see are struggling in some way,” she said.
Williams said the health department works with the Board of Education to provide therapists in every school in Worcester County.
“We just bring the services right there to them,” she said. “The intention is to remove all barriers to treatment.”
Once youths struggling with psychological difficulties are identified, the pathway to resolution begins with therapy, Williams said.
“Then those children are enrolled in mental health therapy and we start to work with them on their symptoms and … reducing those symptoms,” she said.
Sexauer noted the importance of educating teachers and community members to detect the signs and symptoms of children facing behavioral health challenges.
“The trend is increasing so we have more young people who are entering into services,” she said.
Once health professionals are involved, children can start to find the sources of their troubles, Sexauer said.
“We’ve done a lot with youth mental health first aid, which addresses more of the symptoms,” she said. “It’s almost like first aid but it’s mental health first aid.”
The most commonly reported problem related to youths is anxiety, Williams said.
“Worrying about a wide range of things,” she said. “That can present as school avoidance [or] separation anxiety,” she said.
Smaller-scale life occurrences, such as relocating or changing schools, as well as harrowing events, such as physical or sexual abuse, can elicit an anxiety-ridden response, Williams said.
“That can be a wide range of different presentations,” she said.
Williams said other commonly diagnosed conditions include depression, oppositional behavior and ADHD.
Numerous school wellness programs emphasize instilling social skills to address symptomatic issues, she said.
“We have a youth care coordination program which provides wrap-around services that coordinates care between multiple agencies,” she said. “We also have a psychiatric rehabilitation program, which is an add-on to therapy.”
Through an array of cooperating programs, such as START (safety treatment assessment and resource team) and the Crisis Response Team, Williams said school officials and health department personnel are coordinating efforts.
“It gets all those players together at the table for the best interest of the youths,” she said.
Noting that therapy is the primary form of treatment, Sexauer said recognizing the symptoms of psychological issues at a young age help health professionals to prevent those challenges from lingering throughout life.
“If we can identify and get youth involved in treatment … that’s another sign that we are doing our job with reducing stigma,” she said.