A look at mental illness before getting back to school

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A few weeks from now, most young people will be returning to school. This is in spite of a summer of witnessing some of the most horrific violence and murders — and with adults, legislators and officials sending clear messages to students that they don’t matter.

The low regard for quality public education and funding is proof the message is loud and clear. Yet, like ostriches with heads in the sand, these same adults are expecting students to return to school and be productive. What better recipe for mental and behavioral health issues — mainly in the form of violence?

In any given year 26 percent of American adults suffer from mental disorders.

Think about it, when you walk down the street, at least one out of every four or five people you pass is suffering with some form of a mental illness.

The sad truth for the parents and loved ones is that the reaction to these acts is either they didn’t know how to seek help or they didn’t see it coming.

In case you may be too busy to read this column in its entirety, let me give you the takeaway right now. Mental Health America, one of the leading community-based organizations working in supporting a “mentally healthier” America, has outlined some useful tips to be mindful of in helping to identify timely opportunities for intervention. The following behaviors are signs that a child may need help, parents:

• Lack of interest or poor performance in school

• Absence of age-appropriate anger control skills

• Seeing self as always the victim

• Persistent disregard for or refusal to follow rules

• Cruelty to pets or other animals

• Artwork or writing that is bleak or violent or that depicts isolation or anger

• Talking constantly about weapons or violence

• Obsession with violent games and/or TV shows

• Lack of enthusiasm, energy or motivation

• Carrying a weapon to school

• Overreacting to criticism

• Restlessness and agitation

• Bullying

• Misplaced or unwarranted jealousy

• Involvement with or interest in gangs

• Withdrawal from friends and activities

We are all kidding ourselves, or just in plain denial to think we, as a society, can raise and educate young people whose daily lives are perpetuated by violence. They witness news of executions, bombings, torture, war, stavation and suffering from deadly diseases happening from every corner of the world. This is on top of the carnage that now fills the streets and playgrounds that surround their own existence. Who in the world is supposed to be able to grow, learn and develop “normally?”

I believe that it is way past time for us to look at the state of mental health care in this country. Especially regarding emotional and mental illness, there are so many people who are unable to seek treatment because they may be unable to navigate the system in order to receive social services or they just don’t have enough money to pay for treatment if they fall into middle-class incomes because insurance rarely covers mental issues effectively. It must be remembered also that in the 1970’s the doors to the mental hospitals were closed to the indigent, and those people flooded the streets with nowhere to live and no place to receive help. Not to mention we, as a society, turn a blind eye.

One of the greatest, and most under-treated, threats affecting Americans today is mental illness. Hundreds of millions of people worldwide are affected by mental, neurological or behavioral problems at any time.

In keeping with the prevalence of health disparities and inequities in practically every other area of health, the African-American community suffers disproportionately from mental health and lacks mental health treatment.

One in four patients visiting a health service has at least one mental, neurological or behavioral disorder, but most of these disorders are neither diagnosed nor treated.

Mental illnesses affect, and are affected by, chronic conditions such as cancer, heart and cardiovascular diseases, diabetes and HIV/AIDS. Untreated, they bring about unhealthy behavior, non-compliance with prescribed medical regimens, diminished immune functioning and poor prognosis.

Compounding this disparity in mental health is the existence of a pervasive stigma that is held widely in the African-American community: “They might think my child is crazy.”

African Americans frequently lack a usual source of health care as a focal point for treatment. For many African Americans, the emergency room is generally the source of primary care treatment. As a result, mental health care occurs frequently in emergency rooms and psychiatric hospitals. These settings and the limited treatment available in them undermine the delivery of high-quality mental health care.

Adaptive traditions have sustained African Americans through long periods of hardship imposed by the larger society. There is a historical tendency to “cope” and “adapt’ through a myriad of mechanisms. Among them are food, smoking, illicit drugs, violence and sex, just to name a few. For some, it is a total withdrawal from social interactions. For others it’s a featured spot on the 6-O’Clock news!

Less than half of African-American adults with mental illness seek treatment for mental health problems, and less than one third of their children receive treatment. The lack in receiving treatment is due in part to the stigma that surrounds mental disorders in the African-American community.

African-American communities across the United States are more culturally diverse now than any other time in history with increasing numbers of immigrants from African nations, the Caribbean, Central America and other countries. This is being reflective in the makeup of student population in public schools all across America. For the first time, public schools are projected this fall to have more minority students than non-Hispanic whites. To ensure African-American communities have access to adequate and affordable care, a better understanding of the complex role that cultural backgrounds and diverse experiences play in mental disorders in these communities is vital.

Make no mistake, teachers and educators are not mental health experts and are not prepared to work with students who are diagnosed with mental illness without partnering with psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, guidance counselors, special educators and parents. So it is foolish to think sending a student to school is a “one-stop shop” for whatever the student needs to thrive.

What students need are school environments that teach how to process emotions and develop the vocabulary necessary for expression. That is within our reach. If not, we have a rapidly growing prison system preparing more and more become “treatment centers” for the mentally ill.

On the surface, the deep threat this issue poses to African-American health may not be apparent: children who don’t have the support systems to find resilience, while growing up under such dismal circumstances.

Merriam-Webster Dictionary describes being resilient as being able to “be strong, healthy, or successful again after something bad happens.” How good are we at being resilient and how good are we at teaching children how to be? What if this is a key to obtaining and maintaining one’s mental health?

To help your children and yourself have a less stressful and more positive experience with the back-to-school season, it is helpful to work on getting your children’s mental health in shape to help them start the next school year with healthy, stable and strong minds. Unfortunately, school violence and the resulting intense media coverage bring school safety issues to the forefront for all of us.

Take good care of yourself and live the best life possible!