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Lloyd Omdahl: Do we have a mental health crisis?

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May being Mental Health Awareness Month, it seems appropriate for us to confront an issue that eludes our attention until it strikes home.

It is odd that mental health has become a major problem in a country flowing with money and professionalism, both essential for attacking the problem.

Nevertheless, Judith Warner writes a lengthy analysis in the Washington Post Magazine about young people: "Over the last several decades, we’ve been seeing an increase in mental health conditions in children and adolescents."

To be clear at the outset, I talked to a mental health expert who cautioned us not to link suicide with mental health because each has its own unique characteristics. Suicide has its own beginnings.

Earlier this month, PEW Research affirmed this advice: "Mental illness alone does not lead to suicide, and most people experiencing symptoms of a mental health condition do not die by suicide. However, mental illness is one of the risk factors that can elevate the likelihood of a person experiencing suicidal thoughts or attempting or dying by suicide."

PEW, a very reliable fact source, also reported that around 20% of Americans -- over 50 million -- experience a mental health condition.

Back to the problem in children. While the mental health of adults should be a concern, 80% of chronic mental health conditions emerge in childhood, Elana Bernstein reported from a recent analysis from a U.S. task force on mental health in kids.

According to the task force’s report, anxiety is the most common health problem affecting children and adolescents, and 10% to 20% of children struggle with anxiety disorder.

"Anxiety disorders can persist into adulthood if left untreated," the task force noted. "Individuals who experience anxiety in childhood are more likely to deal with it in adulthood ..."

According to Bernstein, there are some common patterns that can be used to detect anxiety.

"These include negative self-talk such as 'I’m going to fail my math test' or 'Everyone will laugh at me,'" she said.

In addition, there are outbursts of emotion, behavioral avoidance, increased tantrums, and refusal to interact.

Since youngsters are reluctant to ask for help, or to express the need for help, the schools have been found to be the best location to start identifying anxiety.

But it takes an increase in professionalism for educators to detect and respond to symptoms of anxiety. Unfortunately, we have already loaded our teachers with so many “crisis” issues that adding anxiety to the list will not be easy.

The U.S. task force proposes a program of screening all children for heightened anxiety. This will not be cheap. In the first place, qualified personnel are difficult to find and when found are very expensive.

We already have complaints from across North Dakota that psychiatric help is sparse and travel is long. On average, according to Warner, it takes almost 10 years from the time when a child first starts having symptoms until he or she receives treatments.

With $9 billion stashed away at the state Capitol, it would seem to make sense to spend some of it for our children. This oversized “rainy day” fund should be considered because children are now in the “rainy day.”

Lloyd Omdahl is a political scientist and former North Dakota Democratic lieutenant governor.


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