By Ernie Hood
It is estimated that 1 in 5 children in America will experience a behavioral health challenge. Science has shown that children are not “little adults”—their brains continue to develop throughout childhood and young adulthood. Early identification and treatment of potential mental health issues are critical factors in contributing to positive long-term outcomes.
Every year, the National Federation of Families for Children’s Mental Health (NFFCMH) sponsors Children’s Mental Health Awareness Week, a national event that highlights the need for services and supports for children experiencing behavioral health challenges and their families. This year’s activities run from May 1–7 and showcase the theme, “Finding Help, Finding Hope.”
“The theme is intended to continue the national dialogue about the need for an integration of physical health and behavioral health services,” said NFFCMH Executive Director Dr. Lynda Gargan. “We will focus on stories of successful integration of services that lead to a much more successful outcome for our children and youth.”
According to Gargan, if you as a parent or caregiver suspect that your child or young person may be experiencing mental health issues, consulting your family’s pediatrician and expressing your concerns should be the first step you take toward identifying a potential problem and getting help. “Pediatricians are typically the first screeners of behavioral health challenges, and are typically the best place to begin to find help,” said Gargan. “If a parent or caregiver feels that their child is demonstrating behaviors that are concerning, they should schedule time with their pediatrician and share their concerns.”
She cautioned that it can be difficult to tell the difference between normal behavior and something more serious, with signs of a problem varying significantly from child to child. Thus, the importance of consulting a professional.
Gargan also stressed the importance of early intervention: “It’s the very best option for increasing positive outcomes,” she explained. “Behavioral health should be treated just like physical health, and it should receive the same attention that a physical health challenge would receive. Early identification and treatment are critical, and families need a strong network of support.”
The Federation is a national family-run organization linking more than 120 chapters and state organizations focused on the issues of children and youth with emotional, behavioral or mental health needs and their families. It was conceived in Arlington, Virginia in February, 1989 by a group of 18 people determined to make a difference in the way the system works.
The Awareness Week event was originally conceived by a chapter in Missouri 26 years ago. If you are interested in learning more about the topic or would like to participate in Awareness Week activities in your area, consult the NFFCMH website for more information. And while you’re at the site, be sure to visit the Awareness Week Toolkit page for a wealth of useful resources and activities, including a tip sheet with ideas for raising awareness in your community.
“Our children are our most precious natural resource,” Gargan observed. “We must educate our communities to view behavioral health just like physical health and to seek treatment at the earliest indication of need. Events like Children’s Mental Health Awareness Week are created to support our communities, our families, and our children.”