Two Powerful Words…Mental Health

You almost have to be living under water not to be aware of the increasing volume about the issue of mental health and our youth.  Mind you, this isn’t a new topic particularly for those of us who work in any education-related arena or with children/teens, but since the tragedy in CT, the issue is now front-and-center.

Back in my college days, one of my journalism professors spoke about the power of words.  How one word can change everything … marital communications, business negotiations… everything.  How one word can create or shatter barriers, can alienate or establish understanding.   Just think about the power we have to change outcomes based upon words.

Which brings us to the phrase “mental health.”  While the word “health” is associated with visions of organic eating, exercise, relaxation, and long life, the “other” word does not have such positive associations.  With no disrespect toward anyone or anything that follows, we need to admit that there is baggage that accompanies the word mental.  Pre-conceived notions or reality-based or not, mental = sick, crazy, illness, unstable, disorder, abnormal, homeless, psychiatrists, drugs, hospitals, “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest” (for those old enough to remember)…you get the picture.  And when this word is associated with a child or teen — or your child or teen, it’s little wonder why many — parents included — hesitate to step over the line from denial to recognition.

The numbers of children and teens struggling with emotional or behavioral issues far exceeds any statistics.  They’re struggling at home, in school, and in our communities.  They’re struggling in elementary and high school.  They’re boys and girls.  Our children are not just slipping through the cracks — they’re cracking.  And the results to the child him/herself can be life-altering, devastating … or worse.

How many parents have heard things like:  “It’s a stage” … “He’ll grow out of it” … “All kids act this way” … “She just needs more discipline” … “It’s to be expected with ‘fill-in-the-blank’ — autism, ADD, learning disabilities, child of divorce, family history”.  These descriptions are often easier to accept than hearing your child has a mental health issue because it means your child is just like other kids (i.e. it’s a phase or stage).  Or it’s presumed that a mental health issue is just part and parcel of another diagnosis (e.g. autism).  Or that it’s an issue that will resolve itself over time.  Plus anyone who hears the phrase mental health quickly makes the leap to the “other” phrase — mental illness — and this just pushes buttons no one wants pushed.

We can spend hours on our broken health care system which often covers weight loss programs but not mental health coverage, or provides for 15 counseling sessions a year when a child in crisis may require 15 sessions over three weeks.  But the point here is that we need to strip away the barriers to the word “mental” because … until we begin to understand that mental health/illness is equal to medical health/illness … until we begin to advocate for equality in our health care system regardless of the category of need … and until we begin to push for early identification and intervention for our children, the phrase “mental health” will continue to wield the power that belongs with the resources and individuals who can help to close the gaping hole that is swallowing up so many of our children.

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