Improve Outcomes For Children And Their Parents: Fund Family-Focused Mental Health Care

Lauren needed to escape from her abusive husband. She feared for her own life and was terrified for her children, six-year old Sarah and 13-month-old William.

She found a safe place to live at a local family shelter, but felt hopeless and isolated. A victim of child abuse herself, Lauren had no job, nor friends to whom she could turn for help. She had a history of depression and started drinking as a way to cope. Making matters worse, her children were suffering from the trauma and violence. Sarah was failing first grade and William had regressed developmentally.

A teacher referred Lauren to the San Francisco Child Abuse Prevention Center (Prevention Center). Our mission is to prevent child abuse and reduce its devastating impact. Sadly, Lauren and her children are not alone. Every year more than 3,000,000 reports of child abuse are made in our country. Many more children are exposed to violence in their home. And, countless more go undetected.

Child abuse impacts individuals well into adulthood -- including increased risk of school failure, unemployment, long-term health disease and other serious challenges that come at a great cost to society. With 40 years of experience, the Prevention Center knows that one of the best ways to break the cycle of abuse is through intensive mental health and supportive services to both parent and child.

As the Executive Director of the Prevention Center, I have seen first-hand that providing mental health and wellness services to both generations heals the whole family. This mirrors the approach of Ascend at the Aspen Institute, where I am a Fellow. Ascend is committed to creating opportunities for both children and their parents to move up the economic ladder, sustaining a legacy of economic security and educational success across generations. Ascend believes children and their parents can achieve their dreams together. Amazing transformation can happen when we focus on inter-generational solutions.

Current mental health funding requirements, however, make our job of helping families more difficult. Under prevailing law, three criteria must exist to be eligible for children's mental health funding: (1) a medical diagnosis for the child; (2) a mental health service plan that treats the specific diagnosis; and (3) a family income below a certain threshold. The child must be the primary recipient of the services, with additional support to a parent only if it relates directly to the child's diagnosis.

For Lauren and her children, we would need to diagnose at least one of the children -- potentially both -- with a medical diagnosis (such as ADHD, ADD, or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder). Remember, Sarah is six years old and William is only 13 months. Even if we can diagnose them, those labels will stick throughout their school years. We also haven't yet helped Lauren, who is suffering from depression and alcoholism. We could refer Lauren to an adult alcohol treatment center, but many do not provide appropriate childcare or mental health support for children.

What Lauren and her children really need is a two-generation approach: providing mental health services to the family, for both the mother and her children. The catch is that public funding streams are generally not available for family-focused mental health services. While the Prevention Center and other organizations fill in public funding gaps with private dollars, hundreds of families go un-served or have inadequate and ineffective care.

There is a solution: legislation that allows for reimbursement of evidence-based, family-focused mental health services. Effective treatment for children and their parents exist. We must now transform policies and funding streams to allow access to these services. With our collective attention turned towards health care, the time is right to improve mental health outcomes for families.

Lauren, her children, and countless more fragile families are depending on us.

This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and Ascend at the Aspen Institute, the latter of which is a hub for breakthrough ideas and collaborations that move children and their parents toward educational success and economic security. The series is being produced in conjunction with the Ascend at the Aspen Institute Inaugural Fellowship. To see all the posts in this series, click here. To learn more about Ascend at the Aspen Institute, click here.