Why children's mental health is important to America’s health

Mary Ellen Weissman, Ph.D.

This blog post is part of a weekly series focusing on different aspects of public health leading up to Public Health Thank You Day on Monday November 23, 2015.  Join the conversation on social media with the hashtag #PHTYD and visit http://www.publichealththankyouday.org for more information.

Psychologist Dr. Mary Ellen Weissman discusses the importance of early diagnosis and treatment of learning disorders in children to the public health

All parents want their children to reach their potential and experience success within the home, school and community. But what happens when a child fails to thrive in one or more of these areas and a mental health issue is suspected?

While estimates vary, at any given time approximately 20% of children experience symptoms that constitute a diagnosable psychiatric disorder. Unfortunately, only about one-third of these children obtain mental health services. Given the accumulated evidence of the value of early intervention, suspected at-risk children need access to comprehensive treatment that is driven by appropriate assessment and diagnosis. Research estimates that in 25% of child visits to a primary healthcare practitioner, the child has a psychological issue associated with the presenting problem. Unfortunately, the complexity of information needed to adequately diagnose and treat mental health problems are often beyond the scope of a routine office visit and would benefit greatly from coordination with a child mental health practitioner.

As a licensed psychologist who works with children, adolescents and their families, I often have the privilege and challenge of evaluating a child and determining a course of treatment.  Gaining an understanding of the whole child is critical and requires not only a specific skill set of research-based diagnostic tools, but also a sensitive curiosity about how a family negotiates their world. While that might sound simplistic, a child’s ability to master typical milestones with ease and joy is based on innumerable familial, cognitive, academic, social and community factors that must be considered to implement effective interventions. And this is what makes this aspect of public health challenging, interesting and so rewarding.

I am fortunate that I received strong clinical training. As a Harvard Medical School fellow, I encountered research-based clinical training with mentors who still inspire me. Unfortunately, most children experiencing mental health/academic problems do not have the advantage of assessment and treatment with someone trained in child psychology.  While an estimated 1 in 10 children and adolescents in the United States suffer from mental illness severe enough to cause some level of impairment, fewer than 1 in 5 of these children receive treatment. When treated appropriately and early, many children can fully recover from their mental disorder or successfully control their symptoms. In contrast, children with untreated mental disorders are at high-risk for lower academic achievement, greater family distress and conflict, social problems during childhood and adulthood, and depending upon the type of disorder, problems such as substance abuse and violent or self-destructive behavior. Although some children become disabled adults because of a chronic or severe disorder, many people who experience appropriate mental health treatment are able to live full and productive lives.

Given that the mental health needs of children are integral to their wellbeing and the accumulated evidence of the positive effects of early intervention, accessible mental health treatment that is well-matched to the specific needs of a child and family should be viewed as a primary public health need due to its transformational potential for children and families and the potentially profound economic returns in reduced expenditures in later healthcare. Enhancing access to appropriate and effective mental healthcare should be viewed as a primary health need that is vital for children and facilitates a more positive quality of life within the home, school and community. 

Dr. Weissman is a licensed psychologist specializing in psychological and educational testing and has worked with children and adults for over 25 years. She received her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology from University of Memphis and was previously the Director of Assessment and Psychology at the Kingsbury Center, in Washington D.C. She also works as a consultant for The Department of State, The Madeira School, Mercersburg Academy, and Miss Hall’s School.

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