When I was a child in Plains, everyone knew everyone else in town. Church and school were the center of our community and were strong and positive influences on my life and those of my siblings and friends. So much has changed since then. The social fabric I took for granted no longer exists. On May 6--National Children's Mental Health Awareness Day--we need to acknowledge the fact that too many children in our nation are left to struggle with a whole host of stressful circumstances--violence, divorce, poverty, substance abuse and war, to mention just a few, without effective supports.
Children in foster care are especially vulnerable; they have already been exposed to trauma by virtue of being brought into the protective services system in the first place. Approximately 800,000 children are reported in the foster care system nationwide at any one time. Anywhere from 40 to 85 percent of kids in foster care have mental health problems--a staggering number. At a recent symposium at The Carter Center, a poised young woman in medical school described her early life as a foster child. "When I left my mom to live in a foster home," Angela told us, "I was very, very upset because nobody told me why I left. They could not tell me anything. I was 6, so if they had said anything, I would not have understood it. I have been in different foster homes and group homes. I have been in mental institutions ...
"It was really hard growing up, having to fight in different group homes and foster homes. One of the things that used to bother me the most was one of the girls always got to go home on holidays, and I wished I had a family that I could go home to. That used to eat me up inside so much."
Children growing up in these circumstances are at great risk, but like Angela, they are also remarkably resilient. Indeed, today we know much about how to cultivate resilience in all children. Carl Bell, MD, President and CEO, Community Mental Health Council, Director of Public and Community Psychiatry at the University of Illinois at Chicago who introduced Angela at our symposium, has also been one of the field's foremost advocates for promoting resiliency.. He speaks passionately about the need to shift our focus from a deficit-based model of child development, where the goal is to overcome problems, to a strength-based model that emphasizes support. Carl puts it this way: "Most of life is about attitude and perception." Children are best served when we help them develop the skills they need to frame whatever challenges and obstacles they may meet in a positive paradigm.
Carl has identified a number of characteristics present in resilient children--the same characteristics that enabled Angela to overcome her troubled childhood. These include having a sense of purpose in life, confidence in one's ability to control any given situation, compassion for others, a belief in the fundamental goodness of people, and the energy and resourcefulness to make things happen. John Gates, PhD, former director of the Mental Health Program at The Carter Center, describes them as "characteristics that enable children to work well, play well, love well, and expect well."
In Minnesota, an innovative program called Check and Connect, developed by the University of Minnesota's Institute on Community Integration in Minneapolis, uses strategies such as social skills training and relationship building to increase student engagement with school and reduce dropout rates.. The program was initially designed to meet the needs of students with behavioral and learning challenges by pairing students with a patient, caring adult mentor. Studies have demonstrated over and over the positive effects achieved by this program, yet because of funding constraints it remains only a demonstration project.
Why is it that we are so slow to take what we know works and make it available to communities all across the country? We can and must do more. We are all familiar with the adage "A stitch in time saves nine." When it comes to children, this proverb couldn't be more apt. If budding issues are not adequately addressed early on, they become bigger and more often devastating problems later in life. Mental health problems during childhood are often precursors to delinquency, substance use, smoking, risky sexual behavior, and school failure. Our inattention is causing unnecessary pain, trauma, and even death. The wasted potential is immeasurable.
Our children are our most precious resources. And we cannot delay, for as my good friend and our nation's surgeon general while we were in the White House, the late Dr. Julius Richmond observed, "Every day that we do not intervene with effective programs, we are losing remarkable human potential. And every child whose potential is wasted is an incredible loss to the nation."