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Shawna Croaker and Jody Claus, Published January 07 2013

Letter: Reactive intervention too late when mental health is a factor

There has been much exposure and public conversation around mental health in light of the recent tragic school shooting in Connecticut.

The one common theme is a need to “do something.” There are many different ideas on how to intervene: more meds, less meds, special services, incarceration, more hospitalizations, etc. Another common theme is that most of these interventions are reactive.

Are all mental health disorders preventable? Can prevalence and severity be decreased and symptoms minimized? Why do some children develop mental health disorders and others don’t? Certainly this is a complicated issue with many influences.

What exactly is mental health anyway? While the causes are complex, the definition of mental health is really quite simple. It is exhibited by the quality of the relationships we have with others, experience and expression of emotion and the ability to navigate and cope through life’s challenges. This is what research tells us:

• Research shows that the brain is 80 percent to 90 percent developed by the time a child is age 5. The experiences during this crucial time period lay the foundation for a child’s entire life, the relationships they will have with others, how they trust and relate to the world and how they learn. These experiences, good or bad, greatly affect a child’s future.

• Ongoing stress experienced at a young age greatly increases the chances of a child developing mental health and physical health disorders.

• Early identification and intervention can prevent some forms of mental illness and decrease related symptoms. What can we do?

• Provide predictable routines, consistent and responsive care giving and loving interactions. This helps children learn to trust others.

• Whether a child care provider, teacher, neighbor or parent, never underestimate the power of your relationships with children. Children need to know that they really matter.

• Support legislation and local services that help decrease stress for families. Healthy families equal healthy children.

• Reach out to others. Ask for and accept help.

• Encourage early identification of mental health warning signs through screening and assessment. Ask your child care provider, teacher or physician for more information.

• If you have concerns, don’t just “wait and see.” Seek guidance from family, friends and professionals.

• Broaden your views and knowledge on mental health. Without question, mental health is complex.

While not all mental health disorders are preventable, symptoms can be reduced and the personal and societal impact minimized. We have spent way too much time and resources focusing on reaction rather than prevention. It is time to shift our perspective. We need to stop reacting to mental illness and start focusing on mental health.

Croaker and Claus, Fargo, are with the Children’s Consultation Network.