Commentary: Disruptions have invaded our children's lives creating a mental health epidemic

·4 min read

The past two years have created an avalanche of concerns in the field of mental health and have disrupted the learning of our youngest citizens – from loss of routines and behavioral issues to shortage in clinicians to managing the increase in clients with anxiety and depression related concerns.

Last month, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek H. Murthy issued an advisory to highlight the serious need to address the nation’s youth mental health crisis. In his report, he states: "The future well-being of our country depends on how we support and invest in the next generation.”

As CEO of Child and Adolescent Behavioral Health (C&A), I believe our youngest citizens are our most valued asset. I have witnessed firsthand how important mental health is in our schools and to our community as a whole. I know it will take creative and collaborative efforts to create positive change and to find unique solutions to the problems we face; however, just as children are resilient, so is the Stark County community.

During the past two years, disruptions have invaded our children’s lives, and, in the process, created a mental health epidemic. The rise in mental health issues include stress and anxiety producing an increase in many behavioral concerns while lacking sufficient staff to treat clients.

C&A, like many mental health organizations, is struggling to find clinical therapists to manage the overload of clients seeking services. This is a growing national problem that is reaching a tipping point due to the increase in need from the pandemic.

Consistency, stability and routines are important for all of us to maintain a positive mental health outlook. For our youth, these three components are vital to overall success at home, in school and for their future.

Last spring, I had the privilege of speaking with multiple community members — superintendents, community partners and foundations, who agreed the pandemic created many behavioral issues and a huge learning gap among students.

Even with limited resources, C&A searched for creative ways to resolve the problems our community partners were experiencing. We had many conversations about providing help to close the learning gap while working on the social-emotional support.

By the end of the planning stages, we formed a collaboration with the YMCA of Stark County, the Massillon Boys and Girls Club, and Lighthouse Ministries. Our goal was to support the partner agencies with services that focused on youth who are struggling with behavioral and emotional issues, lower expulsion rates and return the focus to learning.

C&A prevention staff and case managers went onsite at each location to provide mental health support. C&A staff were available to provide one-on-one coaching and mentoring while also providing group activities.

The services provided through this collaborative program teach "soft skills" needed such as creativity, critical thinking, innovation and teamwork, along with basic problem-solving and emotional regulation skills while enhancing learning. These services were made available at no cost to families.

The Sisters of Charity Foundation of Canton saw the need for this valuable program and graciously provided funding for the summer program and after-school programming.

"In our efforts to support children’s educational needs, we’ve learned that social-emotional support is what children most need right now. Certainly, we need to work toward closing the educational gap, but that cannot happen until we acknowledge, and help alleviate, the pandemic’s effects," said Joni Close, president of Sisters of Charity Foundation of Canton.

I was able to witness our C&A staff working with youth to manage conflict and reinforce anger/emotional management skills in addition to learning coping mechanisms, resiliency and valuable soft skills to decrease the potential for removal from these programs.

We know that structure and consistency are keys to school/life success. The approach our prevention staff took was child-centered which built a strong connection with the youth. This enabled youth to improve pro-social skills; enhance decision-making; and implement problem-solving strategies.

All of the efforts empowered the youth to be the best version of themselves and provided a valuable outlet. C&A provided a therapist if a youth needed additional services.

In addition, case managers were on-hand to assist families who were struggling and needed links and further resources within the community. This creative and collaborative program was able to reestablish the three important components young citizens need to succeed, including seeing a trusted adult on a regular basis.

It’s often stated, "It takes a village to raise a child."

I am blessed to work in Stark County with a dedicated village of organizations and passionate advocates working to ensure every child has the chance at health, hope and happiness. The prevention program is continuing today as we seek to braid funding and look for creative ways to keep moving forward.

Our community and our future depends on us to do everything we can to support our youngest citizens.

Joe French is chief executive officer of Child and Adolescent Behavioral Health in Canton.

This article originally appeared on The Repository: Commentary: Disruptions invaded children's lives, create epidemic