Speak Up for Kids Mental Health This Week

The public perception of child and adolescent mental illness hasn't changed along with the possibilities that have opened up to treat or even prevent it.
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This is it: National Children's Mental Health Awareness Week is this week (May 6-12), and we want to make as big a noise as we can, letting as many people as possible know that we think kids' mental health is as important as their physical health. I hope you'll join us in making our voices heard, to counter the misinformation and stigma that prevent so many kids from getting the help they need.

The message we want to send is that kids who are struggling should get help before their impulsivity becomes dangerous, before their anxiety becomes crippling, before their failure in school makes them decide they're "stupid," before their disruptive behavior gets them in serious trouble.

Childhood psychiatric disorders should be treated before they become adult disorders, which are much tougher to fight. And kids should get help before they miss out on the main task of childhood and adolescence -- learning -- because they're too anxious to try new things, too distracted to pay attention, too despondent to be engaged, too hyperactive to concentrate.

When I became a child and adolescent psychiatrist nearly 35 years ago, it was because I saw an opportunity to have a positive effect, to prevent struggling children from becoming very disabled adults. And our ability to alter the course of a life for the better has only improved since then, along with the tools we use to treat kids.

We've made enormous strides in understanding children, how they think and develop and how they're different from adults. We now have specialized, targeted behavioral therapies that really can transform young lives, as well as more effective medications.

But the public perception of child and adolescent mental illness hasn't changed along with the possibilities that have opened up to treat or even prevent it. That's why we started Speak Up for Kids. Because stigma and misinformation STILL stand in the way of kids getting treatment that could really change the course of their lives.

Where we have areas of progress -- like effective medications for ADHD -- there's a backlash, and lots of people blaming parents. It's become common to read that ADHD isn't real, that the symptoms are caused by poor parenting and that these same poor parents are using medication as a "quick fix" for their kids' bad behavior. If you had met as many of these parents as I have you would know that this is simply not true.

I'm sure there are cases of misdiagnosis, when the doctors doing the prescribing aren't well-enough informed about ADHD. But the kids who are not getting diagnosed and treated are a much bigger concern of mine.

Instead of people embracing the tremendous upside of early intervention -- the possibility of preventing a lifetime of dysfunction and suffering -- we hear that we should just let kids grow out of their problems. I am well aware of the charge that mental health professionals are pathologizing normal behavior, treating symptoms that all children exhibit -- distraction, hyperactivity, anxiety, impulsiveness, moodiness, disruptive behavior. But the children who need help are those who are way out of the normal range for these symptoms, and they are seriously impaired by them.

No one would tell the parents of a child with diabetes or leukemia that they shouldn't seek treatment, and no one should tell the parents of children with psychiatric or learning disorders that they're overreacting by getting help, whether it's medication or behavioral therapy or both.

Obviously, we need a national conversation about children's mental health, to force out into the open the parent-bashing and misinformation that is being promulgated. We need all our kids to have the opportunity to fulfill their potential, and to get there we need you to help spread the word about early and effective intervention.

This week people all over the country (and the world) will be speaking up for kids who are struggling and the parents who are trying to help them. They will be telling the world that childhood psychiatric disorders are real, common and treatable.

Go to childmind.org/speakup and add your voice to this important cause.

Harold S. Koplewicz, M.D., is a leading child and adolescent psychiatrist and the president of the Child Mind Institute. For more on important issues in children's mental health, go to childmind.org, which offers a wealth of information on childhood psychiatric and learning disorders.

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