This was co-authored with Foster Skills Special Projects Manager Justine Fischer.
On ESPN's First Take, Brandon Marshall - an NFL star athlete - announced that he is pledging 1 million dollars of his new contract to mental health initiatives. He has suffered from mental health problems and understands the toll it takes on a person's life and those around them. Similarly, foster youth must try to cope, like Brandon Marshall, with mental health issues that often manifest themselves via behavioral problems.
Foster children are taken from their parents and typically the events that ensue are traumatic. As a result, foster children are subjected to stress early on due to their life situations, which affects their brain development. The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University detailed the effects in an InBrief: The Impact of Early Adversity on Children's Development.
Toxic stress experienced early in life and common precipitants of toxic stress -- such as poverty, abuse or neglect, parental substance abuse or mental illness, and exposure to violence -- can have a cumulative toll on an individual's physical and mental health.
Recurrent and intense adversity - like extreme poverty or repeated abuse - is extremely detrimental to children.
In the Oprah Magazine, Dr. Perry said:
From a functional perspective for the developing child, neglect is the absence of necessary stimulation required to build a certain part of the brain so it can function normally. When a child doesn't get enough stimulation early in life the brain may develop differently.
Without the proper support systems, children develop chronic stress and excessive cortisol disrupts their developing brain circuits, which changes all kinds of functions, including the ability to form and maintain relationships.
According to Overstressed Kids:
The lasting, neurobiological effects on young children (who, along with infants, have particularly malleable neural circuits) that experience toxic stress are a far greater likelihood of anti-social behavior, lower achievement in school and at work, and poor physical and mental health - all of which society addresses at great cost.
The National Institute of Mental Health funded and conducted a national survey of children in the child welfare system. They found that "nearly half (47.9 percent) of youth in foster care were determined to have clinically significant emotional or behavioral problems." Another study by the Casey Family Programs and Harvard Medical School showed that a "high number of former foster children have psychiatric disabilities as adults." Also, foster care alumni have a rate (25.2 percent) of PTSD, which is double the rate of U.S. War Veterans. These statistics are shocking and stem from the early adversity and stress foster children are subjected to. It is important for the foster care and mental health systems to be interconnected and share resources to improve the well being of foster children.
One such program that integrates child welfare and mental health is Anu Family Services. They help disconnected youth to obtain permanence in greater numbers by taking a youth-driven approach to healing relational trauma and connecting youth with those they've loved and lost through out-of-home care. "We use this approach because after nearly a decade of partnership with the University of Minnesota's Center for Advanced Studies in Child Welfare, we know it works!" says President Amelia Franck Meyer. "After 10 years and 35 placements in out-of-home care, Tarita has been reconnected with 45 family members, including 14 siblings, and is no longer suicidal. Hearing messages from your family that say 'You are our baby. We have always wanted and looked for you, always celebrated your birthday, and you belong' is far more healing than what can be done in 'treatment'."
At the 2014 Conference on Child Abuse and Neglect, Joo-Yeun Chang said:
There's a new five-year collaborative demonstration to encourage states to promote the use of evidenced based psychosocial intervention to children and youth in the foster care system and at the same time to reduce overuse of prescription medications and, ultimately, to improve outcomes for these children.
According to the Government Accountability Office up to 40 percent of foster youth were taking one or more psychotropic medication. Foster youth are prescribed these meds at higher rates than other children served by Medicaid. This is why Senators Tom Carper and Ron Wyden recently held a press conference on Capitol Hill to bring attention to intersection between foster care and mental health.
When children are in foster care, we must treat them like kids, but realize they have faced a tremendous amount of trauma. Their behaviors are not okay, but they're indicative of the hurt they are feeling and emotional damage they have had to try and cope with. This is why a clinical approach that includes a neurobiological approach, like the Neurosequential Model of Therapeutics, to treating maltreated children can help them regulate their stress response systems.
The Administration for Children and Families and Anu Family Services are attempting to tackle the issues of mental health by using innovative approaches to bridging the foster care system and mental health services. In addition, The National Disability Council on Disability Programs offered up a list of recommendations that empowers policymakers and service providers to better help children and teens with psychiatric disabilities in the foster care system. Programs, initiatives, and recommendations like these will ultimately help to improve mental health outcomes for foster youth.
The month of May was both National Foster Care Month and Mental Health Awareness Month. It is vital to look at these two issues not as separate entities but as entwined systems, which we must urge collaboration between all stakeholders, including philanthropic partners. Securing more champions, like Brandon Marshall and his wife, can help many foster kids become functioning, productive members of society.