Klea Scharberg

Caring for Every Child’s Mental Health

National Children's Mental Health Awareness Day, May 9, 2012

What does it take for children to be mentally healthy? Being mentally healthy is not just about emotional and behavioral difficulties. It's also about being mentally strong and resilient and having the skills and supports to deal with stressful issues when they arise. Today is National Children's Mental Health Awareness Day, established and promoted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). The Awareness Day national event complements activities occurring across the country, such as community events, youth rallies, social media campaigns, and activities with children that promote communication between adults and children following traumatic experiences.

We know that

  • Abuse and neglect can disrupt attachment and stem the development of important relational capacities. Nearly 35 percent of children and youth who are reported for maltreatment demonstrate significant deficits in social skills.
  • In a nationally representative survey of 12- to 17-year-olds and their trauma experiences, 39 percent reported witnessing violence, 17 percent reported physical assault, and 8 percent reported a lifetime prevalence of sexual assault.
  • Young people who are homeless or runaway, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or questioning are more likely to report victimization on the streets, versus heterosexual runaway youth (58.7 percent versus 33.4 percent).
  • Among a sample of youth in juvenile detention, 93 percent of males and 84 percent of females reported exposure to a traumatic experience. Eleven percent of males and 15 percent of females met the criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). PTSD and other mental health challenges can impair a youth's capacity to reach age-appropriate developmental goals.
  • Children and youth who experience trauma display increases in stress hormones comparable to those displayed in combat veterans. Researchers point to multiple potential outcomes for children exposed to trauma, including attachment, mood regulation, dissociation, self-concept challenges, and behavioral, cognition, and biological changes, all of which can have a negative effect on school attendance, learning, and academic achievement.
  • When exposed to a traumatic event, children as young as 18 months can have serious emotional and behavioral problems later in childhood and in adulthood. More than 35 percent of children exposed to a single traumatic event will develop serious mental health problems.
  • In 2009, researchers found that more than 60 percent of youth age 17 and younger have been exposed to crime, violence, and abuse either directly or indirectly, including witnessing a violent act, assault with a weapon, sexual victimization, child maltreatment, and dating violence. Nearly 10 percent were injured during the exposure to violence, 10 percent were exposed to maltreatment by caretaker, and 6 percent were a victim of sexual assault.
  • As the number of traumatic events experienced during childhood increases, the risk for the following problems in adulthood increases: depression; alcoholism; drug abuse; suicide attempts; heart and liver disease; pregnancy problems; high stress; uncontrollable anger; and family, financial, and job problems.
  • Studies on the brain show that physical, emotional, or sexual abuse in childhood can cause permanent damage to the brain, reduce the size of parts of the brain, and affect the way a child’s brain copes. This can result in enduring problems such as depression, anxiety, aggression, impulsiveness, delinquency, hyperactivity, and substance abuse.
  • Young children exposed to five or more significant adversities in the first three years of childhood face a 76 percent likelihood of having one or more delays in their cognitive, language, or emotional development.

Research has shown that caregivers can buffer the effect of trauma and promote better outcomes for children even under stressful times when the following Strengthening Families Protective Factors are present:

  • Parental resilience
  • Social connections
  • Knowledge of parenting and child development
  • Concrete support in times of need
  • Social and emotional competence of children

Join SAMHSA tonight at 7:00 p.m. eastern time for the live webcast of the annual National Children's Mental Health Awareness Day event featuring youth who have overcome trauma and their "Heroes of Hope," Honorary Chairperson Cyndi Lauper, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, and other dignitaries. Tomorrow, May 10, at 2:00 p.m., the National Institute of Mental Health (part of the National Institutes of Health) is sponsoring a videocast panel of children's mental health researchers. Panelists will discuss neuroscience research findings related to teen brain development, cognition and emotional and behavioral growth, and treatment for teens.



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