Leading from the Left

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Guest Post to Wrap up Mental Health Month

We're coming to the end of Mental Health Month during which I devoted most of my posts here on this blog to mental health issues. I intend to continue my coverage of mental health issues, particularly this reform mess. Thanks for all your comments and suggestions this month....much appreciated.

Today, I'm honored to have a guest post from Linda Foxworth. Linda is a children's advocate and mental health advocate whom I first met years ago when we both served on the Board of the Childcare Services Network. She now heads up Kidscope, a local non-profit that works with children with mental health issues. Here is Linda's guest post:

Young Children’s Mental Health

I was very pleased to hear about the recent National Children’s Summit in Washington, DC, and to read Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s opening remarks, and I quote, “We take seriously our responsibility to America’s future – our children. As the brilliant author and activist Pearl S. Buck said: ‘If our American way of life fails the child, it fails us all.’ Today, we commit to ensuring our children are given the tools they need to succeed.” Nice rhetoric, but what tools is she referring to and who will give them to our children?
It seems as though the tide is turning toward a national interest in the well-being of our children and not a moment too soon. Locally, a group of early childhood professionals, family members and community leaders met on a Saturday morning to hear Dr. Betty Rintoul talk about mental health issues in young children. The group was small, but the information exchanged about the importance of early intervention and treatment of young children with mental health issues was invaluable and should be shared with everyone.
For many people it is hard to imagine that young children would be suffering from mental health issues. Good mental health is an important aspect of a family’s ability to grow and thrive. 70% of preschool teachers cite behavioral and social/emotional problems as the primary problem putting young children at risk. Recent research indicates that the quality of brain development is shaped by a child’s experiences. Children can develop in such a way that they see the world as safe, predictable and worth exploring and learning from, or as hostile, distrustful and frightening. Early environmental experiences, especially parenting, have a huge influence on emotional development and therefore on behavior. Children who've developed good brain functions by age five have advantages that accumulate through life. One thing that leaps out of all the brain literature is that emotion serves as a central organizing process within the brain. Children learn from people they love. If we want young people to develop the social and self-regulating skills they need to thrive, we need to establish stable long-term relationships between children and families and caregivers.
Mental Health reform in North Carolina has turned our focus away from the needs of young children and put it squarely on services for troubled adolescents, substance abusers and adults with severe mental health issues. All of them were once preschoolers, and although not all troubled preschoolers end up as adults in need of mental health services nearly all troubled adults could have been identified as problematic when they were preschoolers.
Whatever services are planned in the “reform of the reform” of mental health in North Carolina, services for the very young must be included. As the director of a KidSCope, local children’s mental health program that has been in existence for 20 years and served nearly 3000 young children and their families, I know that funding is scarce, and each community will need to make tough decisions about the services that they want available to their citizens. In Orange County, we appreciate our local officials who have always advocated for young children and families and prioritized their services. We must continue to do so. Not prioritizing mental health services for children birth to five will not serve us well and will cost us dearly in the future, not just in dollars, but in human resources as well. We must build a future that speaks to the health and well-being of even its youngest members. As Karl Menninger, a famous American psychiatrist said, "What is done to children, they will do to society."

For more information, you may contact Linda Foxworth at lfoxworth@kidscope.chtop.net.