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More Than 7 Million American Children Suffer From Mental Illness

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Gun-related killing sprees in schools make for catchy headlines, but the fact that more than 7 million children in the US suffer from mental illness does not. Maybe that’s because in guns people find a silent culprit whom they can blame or maybe because it is easier to politicize death statistics than address a real problem.

With one in every seven school-goer suffering from mental illness, who should we blame for the gun-related violence at schools? It is for you to answer: the guns or those policy-makers who have failed to address the problem of mental illness among those going to schools. While deciding do not forget that guns have since the US’s existence been a part of the American identity but school massacres are a new phenomenon.

The problem

113 innocent kids got killed in 2018 in school shootings. While it is easy to blame the prevalence of gun culture in the US for it, we must also reconcile with the fact that about 7.7 million children and teenagers in the US—about one in seven—suffer from at least one form of a treatable mental health disorder, including but not limited to depression, anxiety or ADHD, a new study suggests. Half of these children in the United States go without treatment, according to a study published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics. Just think over it, one in seven classmate of your child can suffer from mental illness and can be a murderer in the making, and they do not need guns to wreak havoc; kitchen knives, sharp pens, stones or even bare hands are enough.

The primary data for the study was collected from the 2016 National Survey of Children's Health, a nationwide survey administered to parents of children and teens. Of the 46.6 million children aged between 6 and 18 whose parents completed the survey, 7.7 million had at least one mental health problem—anxiety, depression, or attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder—and only half received any treatment or counseling.

While this revelation might seem startling to the uninitiated, experts have since long been aware of the problem. Dr. Barbara Robles-Ramamurthy, a child psychiatrist at the Long School of Medicine, UT Health San Antonio told CNN, “Unfortunately, this is not news for us.” She added, “we have known that the number of children who have mental illness and that go untreated is very high.”

The reasons

We will be aiming at the wrong target if we try dealing it with as though it were a mere health problem. The reasons for this are more complex and would certainly be best addressed if we were to look at it as a socio-economic problem. While further research is needed to completely understand the reasons, “possible factors include policy differences, socioeconomic factors, access-to-care issues or even parents' individual decisions”, says senior author Mark Peterson, Ph.D., M.S., U-M associate professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation and current policy fellow at the Center for Healthcare Research and Transformation. 

Taboo

According to her, within some communities there is a stigma that surrounds mental illness which causes families to feel uncomfortable accessing and utilizing mental health care services.

However, this can lead to serious problems as highlighted by Daniel Whitney, Ph.D., from Michigan Medicine’s Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. He says, “untreated mental health disorders can have a debilitating impact on children’s healthful growth and throughout their transition to adulthood.”

Insufficient financial support from the government

The problem is compounded due to the fact that insurance coverage for mental health services is limited. According to several reliable estimates there are fewer than 17 practicing child and adolescent psychiatrists for every 100,000 children. This number mismatch leads to longer wait times, and thereby results in a large number of children desperately needing treatment to go without  treatment.

Scarcity of trained mental health counselors

“The number of mental health providers relative to the number of children who need this care is woefully inadequate,” says Marcus who also leads the Michigan Child Collaborative Care Program (MC3) that provides primary care providers with critical psychiatric support services.

“This severe shortage is the single greatest barrier to receiving resources.”

For example, in half of the counties of Michigan there are not even a single child psychiatrist, Marcus notes, and this creates geographic disparities even within the state. Also, mental health professionals are seeing a surge in the number of these children coming from poor households, and from dysfunctional families, or those who have been exposed to adults with a substance abuse disorder.

Demographic variance

Statistics varied from state-to-state, with numbers ranging from 7.6% of children in Hawaii suffering from a mental health condition, to 27.2% in Maine.

The study also found the states with the highest number of children who suffer from mental health disorders are Alabama, Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Utah.

The solution

As complex as it might appear to find a solution, making a start by acknowledging it at a policy-making level will hurt none. There is no single window solution to solving the problem at hand and a well-thought-of strategy addressing treatment gaps, implementing policy changes in insurance reimbursement rates, developing better and more approachable public and private mental health facilities, recruiting more specialists and trying to build strong partnerships between child psychiatrists and primary care providers.

“Children’s emotional wellbeing is just as important as their physical health,” Sheila Marcus, M.D., a pediatric psychiatrist at University of Michigan’s C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital says. “It’s critical that we continue ongoing efforts to ensure children and teens who are struggling with emotional, behavioral, and developmental problems and disorders are getting the resources they need.”

“We need to better understand the stark geographical differences in health services provided to children with mental health conditions so we can improve care for this population,” said Mark Peterson, Ph.D., M.S., U-M associate professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation and current policy fellow at the Center for Healthcare Research and Transformation. “Reducing the burden and improving treatment across states may require policy changes.”

The progress

In an attempt to provide timely mental health services for kids, many pediatric health systems have started to integrate holistic practices into pediatricians' offices.

Some mental health providers are now co-operating with pediatricians in order to build trust and to reach families in a more familiar and conducive environment, said Mautone, who leads one such program: The Healthy Minds, Healthy Kids Initiative at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

"We are readily available, many times the same day, to explain our service, meet the family and begin to understand what the challenges are," she added.

He claims that the program has helped more than 2,500 patients in the last two years and that they are striving to expand. Robles-Ramamurthy sees this as a sign of progress but says that this is just the beginning and there is a long way to go before the results show up.

Final words

“Hopefully, these findings encourage parents, clinicians, and communities to be more open about talking about mental health disorders and seeking treatment for these conditions, especially for children and adolescents,” said Dr. Daniel Whitney of the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at the University of Michigan.

It is now for the American citizens to decide what they really want to rally behind: Banning of guns, which as many studies have shown act as deterrents against hardened criminals, or pressurizing the government to take the necessary steps to ensure that kids with mental problems get the needed treatment and counseling?

Author: Pradeep Banerjee