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Parenthood Plus: November 22, 2011

The Children’s Plan

New York State launched an initiative known as The Children’s Plan that focused on the promotion of mental health and the treatment of children with emotional disturbances. I was pleased to serve on the statewide work group that was engaged in the development of the Children’s Plan.

To understand the need that was addressed, let us take a look at the American reality:

• One out of 10 children has a serious emotional disturbance;
• More children suffer from psychiatric illness than from autism, leukemia, diabetes and AIDS combined;
• Only one out of five children who have emotional disturbances receive help from a mental health specialist;
• Emotional disturbances are associated with the highest rate of school dropouts among all disability groups;
• Only 30 percent of children 14 and older with emotional disturbances graduate with a standard high school diploma;
• Suicide is the third leading cause of death for 15 to 24-year-olds.

At North Shore Child and Family Guidance Center, where our mission is to restore and strengthen the emotional well-being of children and families, these statistics are brought to life daily. We are getting an unprecedented number of emergency calls regarding young people who are so anxious or depressed that they feel that life is no longer worth living. Some live in homes that are like war zones where the rules for survival are: don’t talk, don’t trust and don’t feel. Some are so isolated and lonely that they feel invisible. Others are targets of bias and bullying and suffer in silence.

I will never forget the 12-year-old boy who attended one of our school-based mental health programs — the Intensive Support Program (ISP), a joint venture with the Nassau Board of Cooperative Educational Services. He was a transfer student from a district school where he had struggled to learn and was a target of bullying. Upon his return home from ISP one afternoon, he told his mom, “Mommy, for the first time in my life I feel like a normal kid.” His mother told the story to us in tears of relief. One simple sentence, “Mommy, for the first time in my life I feel like a normal kid,” and a lifetime of potential had unlocked.

Community-based mental health agencies offer children opportunities to feel competent, fit in with others, stand tall and have a voice. But such agencies cannot do it alone. Early intervention and partnerships with key stakeholders such as pediatricians and teachers is critical.

According to renowned psychiatrist Harold Koplowicz, who heads up the Child Mind Institute in New York City, “The sooner we get these kids help, the sooner they can get back to being kids and growing into happy, successful adults.” He calls for pediatricians and teachers to be better trained in identifying the signs and symptoms of emotional disorders and to be empowered to notify parents when a child’s behavior falls outside a typical range. His sentiments are reinforced by the key findings and recommendations of the Children’s Plan.

We can no longer afford to operate in “silos” of care that are barriers to integrating and coordinating mental health care for our children. By working together to nurture all children’s potential, we give them the boost that they need to have the best chance for successful futures.

If you are interested in learning more about the Children’s Plan go to: http://www.ccf.state.ny.us/initiatives/ChildPlanHome.htm.