Over 200,000 children and adolescents in Colorado have diagnosable and treatable mental health conditions. Alarmingly, less than one quarter of these children and adolescents receive any type of professional care. Only in recent times are social services and community resources focusing on the prevention of toxic stress, its impacts on mental health, and the promotion of healthy social and emotional development.
On February 7, 2019, we convened a group of pediatric and mental health experts to help educate our supporters and partners on mental health issues facing Colorado’s children and their families. Here, we de-bunk the four most common myths of mental health and share what we learned from this important discussion:
Myth #1: Behavioral health and mental health are the same thing.
Although the terms are often used interchangeably, to do so is incorrect. Mental health focuses on a person’s psychological state, whereas behavioral health is a broader term that includes mental health. Behavioral health looks at how behaviors impact an individual’s physical health and well-being, but does not necessarily address all of the external, environmental factors that may influence an individual’s well-being, such as poverty, discrimination or abuse.
The negative stigma that surrounds mental health has pushed many healthcare and education professionals to reference behavioral health when talking to individuals and families because it’s an easier entry point into a discussion about mental health. Ultimately, the most important thing is to engage people in conversation and identify the appropriate treatment, regardless of how the topic is presented.
Myth #2: Mental health issues are hereditary.
Some psychiatric diagnoses, like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression and ADHD, are likely to be hereditary, meaning they are caused by a gene mutation that is inherited from a parent. But other mental health issues are likely a combination of genetics and lifestyle, which means that certain genes may increase your risk of developing a mental illness, and environmental factors may trigger it.
The vast majority of children and youth in mental health treatment programs have histories of maltreatment, traumatic exposure and chronic stress or adversity. These adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) can damage the developing brain and lead to problems in learning and behavior, as well as increased susceptibility to physical and mental illness. So, although hereditary and genetic factors can influence mental health, our environments, relationships and external supports are significantly more impactful.
Myth #3: If you have a mental illness as a child, it’s something you must live with for the rest of your life.
There has been significant progress in developing trauma-informed and evidence-based treatment programs that can shift negative trajectories and improve outcomes for children. Here locally, Children’s Hospital Colorado is home to a wide array of outpatient, day treatment and inpatient services that provide a coordinated, multidisciplinary approach to evaluation and treatment for children and adolescents ages 5 to 17.
While medical professionals can effectively treat most children, it is more challenging to address the environmental factors that trigger mental health issues in children. There has been a movement toward mental health treatment providers working collaboratively with patients and their families to identify the underlying triggers and help them through crises together. When everyone in the family is provided with the resources and skills to help a child get better, the positive outcomes are considerably more sustainable.
Myth #4: When a child acts out, it is clearly a behavioral health issue.
Dr. C. Henry Kempe often remarked that if you do not understand someone’s behavior, you do not understand their history. When someone acts out violently or aggressively, it is likely because they have experienced a traumatic event or series of events. Breaking the stigma of mental health requires us to look at the issue through a different lens – one that considers an individual’s history and recognizes the myriad of factors contributing to their current well-being. As a community, we can help build up children’s resilience and promote healthy behaviors by ensuring they have supportive relationships and positive environments that nurture their growth and development.
The mental health crisis is one of many threats to the healthy development of Colorado’s children. Over the next few months, Kempe will continue to bring together community partners to help shine a light on these connections and how we can partner as a community to end the cycle of abuse and positively impact child development. We appreciate your support of our efforts to give all children the opportunity to thrive.