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Mental Health Issues Common But Youths Lack Treatment

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Although about 1 in 5 adolescents has a mental health disorder, 60 percent to 90 percent of them don't ask for or receive treatment, a new brief from the Child Trends says. And the mental health needs of adolescents are often first identified in schools, though not often enough.

Some of the barriers to treatment are missed opportunities by schools, parents, and medical providers to address prevention and early identification of mental health disorders; poor coordination of services between schools, primary care providers, and social service systems; and the ongoing stigma associated with mental health disorders, the brief says. It's one of a series of reports by the nonprofit Child Trends concentrating on adolescent health.

Over the last few weeks, mental health treatment has been in the spotlight following the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn.

During a U.S. Senate hearing last week, Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., said he plans to introduce legislation that would codify many of the the Obama administration's recommendations on improving student mental health services.

The administration put forward a package of proposals calling for new federal dollars to cover the cost of training programs to help teachers recognize mental illness early and get students the help they need, and money to help schools better coordinate with local mental health organizations and government agencies.

Experts, including the National Institutes of Health's Thomas Insel told the committee that schools don't have enough access to mental health professionals, including child psychiatrists, my colleague Alyson Klein reports. And Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, the chairman of the panel, added school psychologists to that list.

A lack of support for mental health interventions can cause academic problems for students as well, Mr. Harkin added. "As any teacher or school counselor will tell you, a child who is struggling with depression, anxiety, or another mental health condition is also likely to struggle academically," he said.

South Carolina said recently it is pondering the addition of mental health counselors in its schools. And Connecticut is weighing whether to add school security officers or psychologists and social workers as a way to improve school safety.

The new brief reflects the solutions proposed at the federal level. "Proven and promising treatments do exist, the writers note. "A comprehensive strategy includes interventions that strengthen the skills of adolescents and their families; screening for specific disorders; and promoting mental health through school-based programs, health providers, and community programs."

Another one of the briefs discusses the warning signs of mental health disorders, the most common of which among adolescents is depression. More than 1 in 4 high school students is found to have at least mild symptoms of depression.
And more than half of all mental health disorders and problems with substance abuse begin by age 14.

For young people who are going through a range of emotions because of their stage in life and the continuing development of their brains, some mood swings are entirely normal. But when their psychological symptoms cause major emotional distress, or interfere substantially with daily life and social interactions over a period of time, they should be professionally evaluated, the brief says. "Not all mental disorders among adolescents have obvious, reliable symptoms, but parents, teachers, and others should be alert to some warning signs that an adolescent may be in trouble. These signs include persistent irritability, anger, or social withdrawal, as well as major changes in appetite or sleep."

On a more related but very different note about students' mental health, the final brief discusses resilience, or grit, a newer education buzzword that means an individual's ability "to function
competently in the face of adversity or stress."

Resilience is a sign of positive mental health, a sign that an adolescent will enter adulthood with a good chance of coping well—even if he or she has experienced hardships.

Research shows that the characteristics of adolescents associated with resilience are one or more adults providing caring support; an appealing, sociable, easygoing disposition; good thinking skills, including judgment and social skills; one or more talents—things a person does really well; belief in oneself and trust in one's ability to make decisions; and religiosity or spirituality.

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