The goal is to promote mental health

Published 8:00 am Monday, May 28, 2012

By Mary Larscheid, Guest Column

Years ago I ran across this quote by the 18th century English poet, William Cowper, “Our most important are our earliest years.”

This quote reaffirms the importance of remembering the vulnerability of childhood and how experiences will shape the individual he or she will become. During his or her early years a child will cultivate an amazing array of skills and abilities. However, some children, whether due to hereditary or environmental influences or a combination of the two will experience a mental health disorder as soon as early childhood.

Mary Larscheid

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In 1999 the surgeon general’s report on mental health was the first time the impact of children’s mental health was addressed. From this report it was discovered, the numbers of children struggling and suffering with unmet mental health needs and their families has created a national crisis. One in 10 children suffers from a mental health disorder severe enough to cause impairment. Only one in five, or 20 percent of these children receive mental health services. Stigma is a major obstacle preventing people from getting help.

People use the terms mental health and mental illness synonymously, when in fact they are not the same.

Mental health is how people think, feel and act as they face life’s situations. It is a cornerstone upon which infants learn to explore their surroundings and respond to caring adults. Children learn how to play, make friends and become engaged learners at home and at school. Youth become confident and competent in their growing independence. Young adults make healthy and safe choices in a variety of environments. Parents care for and support their children and each other. Employees are productive and respectful in the workplace. Older adults sustain satisfying relationships with their families and friends and remain active citizens in their communities.

Children, youth and adults learn to take care of themselves through positive health behaviors such as eating a healthy diet, getting enough sleep and exercise and enjoying time with family and friends.

Mental illness is a term used referring to a wide range of mental disorders diagnosed by mental health professionals. It is best to view mental health on a continuum. On one end are severe mental disorders and on the other end is good mental health. Normal emotions, such as anger, joy, frustration, happiness, loneliness, contentment, even grief and loss all exist on this continuum. How one deals with and expresses those emotions is what indicates the degree of mental health.

Subsequently, the goal is to promote mental health so not to lead to a mental health disorder. Mental health problems can disrupt daily life at home, at school or in the community. Without help, mental health problems may lead to school failure, alcohol or other drug abuse, family discord, violence or even suicide. It’s easy to know when a child has a fever, however a child’s mental health problem may be harder to identify, but one can learn to recognize the symptoms and identify risk factors.

The earlier an intervention is implemented, the greater the chance to develop and maintain good mental health. Preventative interventions have shown to be effective in reducing the impact of risk factors for mental health disorders and improving social and emotional development.

Here are some examples of mental health prevention activities which are simple and familiar. Encourage children to talk about their feelings and the feelings of others. Model appropriate problem solving and conflict resolution strategies. Provide children with opportunities to practice thinking of solutions and anticipating consequences. Help children identify and understand emotions they feel that giving a verbal label to emotional states. Encourage children to try new things by sharing and learning together. Watch for children’s interest and suggest activities to support them. Provide children a safe place to experiment with their growing competence and independence. Provide opportunities for children to practice effective stress reduction strategies.

Even young children can learn deep breathing exercises. Help children practice listening and talking. Encourage children to help others. Help children understand and appreciate similarities and differences among people. Plan and implement activities for children to build a sense of belonging and community.

Childhood is an important time to prevent mental disorders and to promote healthy development, because many adult mental disorders have related antecedent problems in childhood. Thus, it is logical to intervene early in children’s lives before problems are established and become more unmanageable. Early intervention can reduce the effects an emotional or mental health disorder may have on children and their families. It can lessen the duration and severity of the disorder and help children learn positive coping strategies and prevent academic and social failure.

Remember, “Our most important are our earliest years.”

 Mary E. Larscheid, a licensed independent clinical social worker, is a mental health professional for Albert Lea Area Schools.