Guest columnist Alice Barber: Youth mental health needs our attention

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Published: 11/27/2022 5:29:10 PM
Modified: 11/27/2022 5:26:45 PM

Dec. 7, 2022 is the one-year anniversary of the Surgeon General’s advisory alerting us to the youth mental health crisis. According to the statement by Dr. Vivek Murthy, “Advisories are reserved for significant public health challenges that need the nation’s immediate awareness and action.” It further called for “a swift and coordinated response to this crisis … ”

Last year prior to the release of the advisory, several colleagues and I gathered to begin to write an op-ed about this very crisis, but predictably we became too busy to finish the short article; we had too many clients to see. We meant to get back to it, to find an hour here or there to put pen to paper. But what has become abundantly clear is that the crisis is not only with our children, but also with those of us who might help them.

There are not nearly enough of us trained to help children and teens manage their mental health struggles and so, those of us with this training take on one more child, and then another, and then another. The calls from parents are heartbreakingly desperate. There is terror in the voice of the mother who calls and says, “I have called all the numbers I have been given and no one is taking new clients.” Her terror is not about learning gaps and MCAS scores; her terror is about the potential suicide of her child. All learning ends if a child dies. If the numbers of calls I receive is any indication, my estimation that these kinds of calls to community mental health agencies and other community practitioners in the catchment area of this op-ed number in the thousands. If we have the time, we take the calls and tell the parent that there is no room for their child, all the while wondering if we can fit just one more client onto an already overwhelmed caseload. The CDC (2018) lists suicide as the second leading cause of death in children ages 10 to 14. A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association (2017) identifies suicide as the eighth leading cause of death in children ages 5 to 11.

The youth mental health crisis is not about one thing. It is not about mask-wearing, it is not about TikTok. It is about the convergence of mental health vulnerabilities in our children (many of which were present at birth) with outside events that may include abuse, neglect, oppression, community violence, the risk of violence at school, poverty, family deaths, family stress, substance abuse, climate change (it may be surprising to hear that many of my young child clients talk about this), political unrest (yes, they know what’s going on), and of course, the COVID-19 pandemic. Anxiety and depression in our children are rampant. Trauma in our children is rampant. Teachers tell me that they feel like they are running mental health programs in their classrooms while simultaneously trying to teach.

When I bring up this topic — as I frequently do — I am invariably met with a well-meaning comment about how adults are also struggling with mental health issues. Yes. They are. But rarely is a child’s voice front and center in this discussion, and there are far more therapists trained and willing to see adults. “Children are resilient,” is also often something that well-meaning adults say. However, this is short-sighted as resilience is not something we are born having; it is something that is built over time. We (hopefully) become more resilient as we age. Our children are not as resilient as this saying would have us think they are and repeating this is an escape hatch to move along to discussion of other, easier things. Our children are not so much resilient as they are malleable. They bend to fit whatever is thrown their way. A lock-down drill, images of political insurrection, melting ice caps. The thing about bending to meet adversity head-on is that it exhausts the child whose brain will not reach maturity until their twenties.

Several of my current child clients are getting better. Better enough to taper therapy sessions to once a month or to transition out of treatment altogether. These are the ones who have had support predictably and consistently, particularly during the COVID-19 quarantine. These are the lucky ones. Others are in nearly constant crisis. And the parents of those children feel alone and desperate.

I don’t know the ultimate answer to the question: What do we do about it? Most answers are systemic. Some of the answers have to do with insurance companies. Some have to do with student loans. Some have to do with graduate school programs. Some have to do with the economy, access to food, shelter, safety. Some have to do with racism, homophobia, transphobia. Some have to do with a better general understanding of child development, behavior, trauma and the brain. All have to do with a child’s access to quality care.

Explicitly, I am asking local news media outlets to spend time on this topic. Talk about it. Our children are letting us know that they are not OK. Acknowledging the problem is often a solid first step. Print articles about resources. Interview providers. Interview parents and guardians. Elevate the actual voices of the children in our community and how they are feeling about themselves, their friends, their schools, their families. It is from listening and understanding that solutions begin to manifest. Use Dec. 7 of this year, one year later, to remind us of the pandemic within the pandemic — our children’s mental health.

Alice Barber lives in Easthampton and has been a local child therapist for more than 25 years. She is the author of “Blue Butterfly Open: Moments from a Child Psychotherapy Practice” and consults to schools about trauma-informed care.
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