Some tough lines about children’s mental health

I have spent 45 years of my life reading tough lines to people. It was a job. Sometimes I felt like the truth needed to be accompanied by an apology. “I’m sorry to present these facts, because once you hear them, you’ll never rest comfortably until we make things better.” I never said that, but I often felt like it.

One of those facts is that there are unhappy children. That certainly isn’t news. But it is the kind of fact that we seem to accept as one of the conditions of life. The majority of people can get away with that. The majority may never know a child who cannot be made happy no matter how hard the parents try — now matter how much they love, and hug and heap upon the child bright and shiny toys.

I’ve been there. It is an awful feeling to be helpless. It breaks you down when you are helpless to make your own child smile. We cling to a belief that childhood is supposed to be a happy time. The facts prove otherwise. Mental, behavioral and social problems steal happy childhoods from thousands of kids in our communities. The worst part of the story is that we blame the child.  We hear, “He has a behavior problem. She acts out.” Our society often punishes the children, when what they need is the help of people a lot smarter than I am.

Today, May 3, is National Children’s Mental Health Day. You will be hearing a lot of tough lines. You will not be able to shake the facts. You will hear that 9 percent of Minnesota’s school-aged children and 5 percent of pre-schoolers have serious emotional disturbances. They will be labeled “problem children.” Only 20 percent of them will ever see a therapist, or get into a program that will ease their pain. Of those children who get no help, more than half of them will drop out of high school. Statistics show that a large portion of them will end up in prison within five years of dropping out, and their mental disturbances will go untreated.

There are more than 73,000 children in prison today. The Coalition for Juvenile Justice reports that 75 percent of them suffer from some form of mental health problem. Most of them should have been diagnosed and treated before they ended up in the penal system.

Cost to taxpayers
Another tough line: Our failure to help these children when the problems first appear ends up costing taxpayers $247 billion annually. If we had invested a tiny fraction of that money on treatment in early childhood, we wouldn’t face such a huge price tag for lost productivity, assessment and treatment after the child is incarcerated.

That’s money-talk. I keep wondering, how much would we be willing to pay to give a child back his or her happiness? Of course, that is an emotional argument.

Another good argument for helping children before it is too late might be called enlightened self-interest. It is sort of like continuing to pay taxes to support schools after your children have graduated. Enlightened self-interest urges us to keep paying those taxes so we will have a safer, smarter society as we grow older. By investing in a child’s mental health when the problems first arise, seems like a good bet. We get a safer society, less crime, lower tax burdens, productive citizens, and that side benefit of a community of children who look forward to the next day with hope and happiness.

There is good news. The Washburn Center for Children, and other agencies in Minnesota, is dedicated to bringing that peace, happiness and hope into the lives of children who have never considered such things were possible for them. When you hear the tough lines, the natural reaction is to say, “Somebody should do something about that.”  Washburn has been trying for 128 years, right here. Without regard to race, socioeconomic status or the age of the child, Washburn counselors and therapists help more than 2,400 children and their families find mental well being. Fifty-five percent of the children helped by Washburn are from low-income families.

Help and comfort
If you knew a child had broken an arm and the injury and the pain were visible, it would be natural to stop and help — to comfort. The injury and pain of a mental or emotional disturbance are not visible. Sometimes that pain and turmoil show up in unacceptable ways. Our default reaction is to punish, ostracize or marginalize the child. We would never dream of such a thing if a child, through no fault of his or her own, was suffering from a visible injury. And when a child is hurting inside, it doesn’t just bring pain to the child, but to the parents, brothers and sisters, our schools and even our juvenile justice system. The failure to treat a child’s mental pain injures our entire community.

Washburn counselors and therapists help more than 2,400 children and their families find mental well being.
Courtesy of Washburn Center for Children
Washburn counselors and therapists help more than 2,400 children and their families find mental well being.

You probably know a “problem child.” Thousands of kids who have found themselves clients of the Washburn Center for Children have, with help, found happiness. One became a touring golf professional, another a successful television figure. There are doctors and authors who were once the children who felt life held nothing precious for them. Many of Washburn’s success stories wouldn’t make headlines. Those are the distressed children who were helped early in their lives and are now, simply, good parents, good employees, and good citizens. Imagine that!

Today is Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day. I have it marked on my calendar.  My family was helped by Washburn nearly 30 years ago. I won’t ever be able to pay back what Washburn has given us. So, when Washburn asked me to help raise money so that it could build a new place to help more children, I couldn’t say no. 

When we hear the tough lines and wish that somebody would do something to solve the problem, sometimes we find that somebody staring back at us in the mirror.

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Comments (11)

  1. Submitted by David Parekh on 05/03/2011 - 02:36 am.

    Great article, and got me thinking about both sides of the topic.

  2. Submitted by Howard Salute on 05/03/2011 - 10:52 am.

    Don, thank you for talking about this serious topic. We need to hear more.

  3. Submitted by R.W. Anderson on 05/03/2011 - 03:42 pm.

    My grandmother was in the Washburn Memorial Orphan Asylum around the turn of the 20th century. They have been doing good for a very long time.

    Nice article, Don.


  4. Submitted by John Helland on 05/03/2011 - 10:58 pm.

    An important article; thanks, Don! Kids, of course, are the future. They are precious and need to be nourished.

  5. Submitted by Bruce Johnson on 05/04/2011 - 09:30 am.

    Good article. These services are threatened in times of budget cutting, just at the time that economic factors may be complicating the expression of symptoms.

  6. Submitted by William Jewell on 05/09/2011 - 08:20 pm.

    “The man in the mirror,” it’s great to be made aware of issues you don’t always see and you can see the care comes from the heart.

  7. Submitted by A Walker on 06/15/2011 - 05:47 pm.

    R.W., Washburn does indeed have a 128-year history of helping children in the Twin Cities. I’m a Washburn staff member and would love to hear more about your grandmother’s experience at the orphanage. If you are willing to share, please call Washburn at 612-871-1505 and ask for Amy Walker.

  8. Submitted by John Brown on 07/21/2011 - 11:39 am.

    This is a great article. I just want to add that the more diligent we are about collecting empirical data and specifying the impact of the funding, the harder it will be for others to take it away.

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