Community awareness can protect children’s mental health

The theme of this year’s National Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day — May 5 — is “Finding Help, Finding Hope.” What does it mean for our communities in Pennsylvania? Recurring headlines from newspapers in our area, highlighting such issues as child endangerment, child pornography and youth suicide, might make both help and hope seem far away.

As shocking as these headlines are, they truly represent only the tip of a much larger iceberg. In our clinic, for example, we work with a wide range of children and their families. A surprising number of them have been subjected to physical, emotional or sexual abuse, have witnessed violence in their homes, or have lost one of their parents to divorce, suicide or illness. We see many children and youth who pose danger to themselves and others due to underlying depression, anger and anxiety. In a national survey conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 94,000 Pennsylvania youths reported using illicit drugs in the past month, and 7.9 percent had a major depressive episode in the prior year (and 60 percent of them received no mental health treatment).

How can community awareness protect our children’s mental health? How can community awareness help children and families “find help, find hope”?

Here are just a few ways:

▪  Recognize risk early in children’s lives. We are all developing every day of our lives, but the nine months before we’re born and the two years after we’re born are critically important to our later mental health. Infant brains develop very rapidly and in response to their environments. Lack of security in their first relationships, inadequate cognitive stimulation, poor nutrition and stress exposure alter early brain development in ways that may last many years.

▪  Reach out to others. Increasingly, we zoom past each other, trying to keep up with busy and often complicated lives. But let’s pay attention to our relatives, friends and neighbors. When adults struggle, their children often do too. A study of youth found that those who use the Internet more than three hours a day report feeling sad or unhappy. Loneliness and isolation are risk factors for human mental health and lonely, sad individuals do not seek out others.

▪  Report or refer.

If you suspect child abuse, you should contact ChildLine (www.compass. state.pa.us/cwis or 800-932-0313). You don’t need to investigate and you can remain anonymous.

If you know a caregiver with an infant or toddler who is having problems, let them know about the excellent early intervention services for children younger than 3 through the state Department of Human Services (www.connectpa.net or 800-692-7288).

If a caregiver is in crisis, help him or her call Can Help (800-643-5432).

If a woman and her children are experiencing domestic violence, refer them to the Centre County Women’s Resource Center (877-234-5050).

Brian Rabian and Pamela Cole are child clinical psychologists. Rabian is director of the Penn State Psychological Clinic and Cole is assistant director of clinical training at Penn State’s psychology department.