THE BLOG

Breaking Through the Silence of Children's Mental Health

12/02/2016 10:50

On February 17, the Duchess of Cambridge will guest edit Huffington Post UK, and we're delighted that the Duchess has chosen to focus her public service on behavioral and emotional problems in children. She has spoken eloquently about the need to bring down the barriers of stigma and misunderstanding that prevent kids from getting help. Another obstacle to life-changing attention is all around us: silence.

Getting children with mental health and learning disorders noticed and identified is a problem everywhere. And it's a bigger problem for "silent" disorders whose symptoms can be subtle or misidentified.

Anxiety is a powerful example. In the US, as many as 30% of young people will have an anxiety disorder before age 18, and an incredible 80% never get help. Most adults seeking help for anxiety vividly remember feeling anxious when they were younger. Most have been struggling for a long time by the time they seek help, and have developed complex and much harder to treat disorders including depression over many years.

Getting help to kids with anxiety is challenging because, while it may dominate a child's thoughts, it might not be obvious to the people around her.

The behaviors associated with anxiety are very hard to read, because they are so diverse. Some children exhibit anxiety by shrinking from situations or objects that trigger fears, while others have trouble sleeping or complain about stomachaches or other physical problems. They might have trouble focusing in class or be very fidgety. Many have outbursts or meltdowns that make people think they are oppositional, when their fight-or-flight mechanism is triggered.

"Anxiety is one of those diagnoses that is a great masquerader," says Dr. Laura Prager, who sees many children in the emergency room at Boston's Massachusetts General Hospital whose behaviors have been misunderstood. "Particularly with kids who may not have words to express their feelings, or because no one is listening to them."

So many of our difficulties with children's mental health come because no one is listening. That's why the Child Mind Institute never stops calling for a global conversation about mental health. But that conversation really begins in our homes and communities. Isolation, frustration, and hopelessness are the worst possible thing for children and families who struggle with treatable disorders like anxiety, whose lives and futures can be transformed by specialized behavior therapies.

Organizations like the charity the Duchess supports, Place2Be, are crucial because they see that one of the most insidious parts of the children's mental health crisis is kids who go unidentified. Place2Be focuses on giving troubled or struggling students opportunities to talk and seek advice free of judgment--a concrete step towards bringing childhood mental health disorders out of the shadows.

And that's where public awareness campaigns like Children's Mental Health Week in the UK, or the Child Mind Institute's Speak Up for Kids campaign in the US in May, come in: to make society at large more accepting and knowledgeable about how real, common, and treatable mental health disorders are in children and adolescents.

We need resources and more specialists with expertise to make care more available. We need more and better research to create the treatments of tomorrow. But a lot of what we need starts with you and me, in our personal acceptance and honesty and openness in talking about mental illness with our families, our friends, and with other parents who may be struggling.

Help start the conversation in your community by being a person who someone can feel comfortable talking to openly about a child who needs help. By being brave enough to be honest about your own worries and concerns. By being a person who makes other parents feel safe enough to speak up. And let the world know about the great work that people like the Duchess of Cambridge are doing for children who need help but don't have a voice.

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