Time to Take Action in Schools and Communities

Renowned mental health researcher, educator and author Dr. Joy DeGruy Leary has described the greeting of African warriors: Rather than saying, "How are you?" they greet each other by asking, "How are the children?" acknowledging that the well-being of a nation's children is the best barometer of its overall health.

The recent deaths of U.S. youth by gun violence has alerted us again to the prevalence of such violence in our communities, and rightly so. According to the Children's Defense Fund, the number of children under the age of 5 killed by guns in 2010 was more than the number of law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty that same year. From 1999 to 2010, there have been 4,698 firearm deaths of children between the ages of one and 14 in this country. In 2012, Chicago alone saw 506 homicides, more than any other municipality in the nation, and more than 270 school-aged kids killed in just three years.

Moved by the tragedy in Newtown and cognizant of the ongoing violence in many cities nationwide, The Chicago School of Professional Psychology held a series of forums across all our campuses to engage the community and mental health leaders in a dialogue to identify what we can do to find significant solutions. And, earlier this week, I joined 350 college presidents, students, administrators and mayors at a press conference with Education Secretary Arne Duncan to call on Congress to take action to prevent gun violence.

But it's not only about controlling guns. We must tackle untreated mental illness among young people. According to the National Center for Children in Poverty, one in five youth in this country experiences some type of mental disorder, and 75-80 percent in need of mental health care do not receive it. Over the last two decades, suicide rates have doubled among Americans between the ages of 10 and 14. In fact, there are more than 38,000 suicides annually -- more than twice the number of homicides.

It's hard to believe that 50 years ago this week, President John F. Kennedy sent a special message to Congress about the state of mental health:

"From the earliest days of the Public Health Service to the latest research of the National Institutes of Health, the Federal Government has recognized its responsibilities to assist, stimulate and channel public energies in attacking health problems. Infectious epidemics are now largely under control. Most of the major diseases of the body are beginning to give ground in man's increasing struggle to find their cause and cure. But the public understanding, treatment and prevention of mental disabilities have not made comparable progress since the earliest days of modern history."

President Kennedy's statement led to meaningful change in the way Americans view mental health care, but there's much more to be done to overcome the persistent stigma in our society.

Providing support to schools is one essential direction to take, as Senator Al Franken emphasizes in his recently introduced Mental Health in Schools Act. To that end, our graduate students at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology are doing just that: on-the-ground work with more than 100 K-12 schools, school-affiliated programs and college counseling centers nationwide to provide mental health support through assessment, intervention, and crisis team planning and response. They help identify students with social, emotional, and behavioral difficulties and work with parents and community agencies to provide individual and group therapy.

If we are to evaluate our success as a nation based, at least in part, by our children's well-being, we ought to pay closer attention to what ails them emotionally, and to create a safe environment at home, at school and in the community they depend on to thrive.