At a time that should be the happiest stage in their lives, a growing number of children are suffering from mental illness. They’re seen as acting out in school and at home, but internally they’re struggling from depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses that are unrelatable to family, friends and teachers, and are consequently misread and untreated. Mental health professionals say that unless children's mental problems are taken seriously, they will carry them into adulthood, which amplifies the need to educate parents, teachers and others.
The Iberia Mental Health Initiative is bringing back expert Mary Margaret Gleason, MD, FAAP to speak on the topic of children’s mental health. In a free presentation on November 12 at the Sliman Theatre for the Performing Arts in New Iberia, Gleason will identify children at risk of developing mental health problems and help participants recognize the early warning symptoms. She will share her experiences with the power of parents’ and teachers’ observations as well as some healthcare screening tools offered today. Gleason, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, pediatrics at Tulane University School of Medicine, is devoted to helping parents and caregivers steer children in the direction of good mental health.
As to the causes of mental illness, Gleason says they are most often a combination of biological factors a person is born with and what they’re exposed to afterwards. Environmental influences that can lead to lifelong problems of behavior and mental illness range from extreme poverty, abuse and neglect to the everyday stressors like difficulties in friendships.
Specializing in child psychiatry and pediatrics, Gleason says early intervention is most accurate for children with early onset symptoms. “The earlier the intervention the better, because of the rapid brain development,” she advises. “However, intervention can also be effective later when many symptoms don’t develop until school age or adolescence.”
Treated early, children with mental health problems can learn to cope better when certain triggers present themselves. Stressors at school, like tests and bullying, can pose a definite challenge. While at home, adverse experiences like abuse, parental arguing or divorce have their impacts as well.
Program and Education Director for the National Alliance on Mental Health Acadiana, Karen DuBois dispels a common myth about mental illness. “We have to educate others that these children are not willfully misbehaving. Mental illness is a physical illness, a disorder of the brain.”
Education starts with parents (and others) who play a critical role in managing their child’s mental health. Iberia Mental Health Initiative offers a free family health support group the fourth Tuesday of every month, from 6-7p, at Iberia Medical Center’s North Campus on Andre St. It’s there that Phyllis Babineaux, a licensed clinical social worker, advises, “Teach your children to express their thoughts, without feeling embarrassed. Use your ‘poker face’ when listening and don’t jump to conclusions. Focus on your child’s strengths more than their weaknesses. And, NEVER minimize a cry for help, especially if a child says they’ve thought about suicide.”
Sadly, youth mental illness has been associated with tragedies reported in the news. But there are tragedies of other types going on in the homes of mentally ill children: childhoods missing out on fun, families and marriages torn apart and hopes shattered. If we truly want to help these children function in the world, we can’t just draw conclusions; we have to be knowledgeable on the subject. From knowledge comes compassion – and from compassion, a healthier community.
For more information, call Iberia Mental Health Initiative at 337-944-4171.