Opinion: Youth mental wellness must be priority

Lawrence J. Burns

Growing up is hard enough. Add the burden of mental health needs into the mix, and it can feel impossible. Far too many children and adolescents in Michigan lack access to behavioral health services, despite a soaring demand.

Our current health care system is failing to meet the needs of children with mental health disorders. Although one in every five children suffers from a diagnosable behavioral health disorder, only 20 percent of affected children actually receive the treatment needed.

Half of all chronic mental illness begins by age 14; three-quarters by age 24. Despite effective treatments being available, there are often long delays — sometimes decades — between the first appearance of symptoms and when patients get help. Behavioral health illnesses are like any other disease; the earlier they are identified and treated, the better the health outcomes.

Across the United States, there are serious shortages of pediatric behavioral health providers. This shortage leads to decreased utilization of needed treatment, long wait times, and long distances traveled to care.

Mental health is a critical part of a daily healthy lifestyle, and it is equally as important as one’s physical health. Children and families that are underinsured continue to struggle with great barriers to accessing care. Benefits are often limited in scope and amount, certain diagnoses are often excluded, and co-pay requirements are often unaffordable.

In particular, toxic stress is a health crisis for children in our community and dramatically impacts their future health, education, and lifespan. Toxic stress is the normal response of the body and brain to Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). Youth exposed to trauma experience more learning and academic difficulties as well as behavioral and mood-related problems. Children are failing in the classroom as a result, and teachers and school staff are ill-prepared to deal with it.

Through advocacy and community involvement, the behavioral health community has made tremendous strides in beginning to reduce stigma, developing best practices, and advocating for policy reform to improve the lives of children and adolescents with mental illnesses.

Nora Pearson, right, practices breathing during a Mindful Studies class in Oregon meant to ease youth anxiety, depression.

However, addressing access to care for children and adolescents with mental health illnesses remains a challenge. Doctors and allied professionals need more resources and more attention to care for the children in our community.

To help make Michigan a leader in this area, we are helping to launch the “Michigan Advocates for Youth Behavioral Health,” a new coalition of organizations and advocates determined to end stigma, change attitudes towards mental illness, and break down barriers to quality behavioral health care for young people.

We know that when Michigan becomes better educated about these health needs, attitudes change. With quality care and support, children and teens with behavioral health challenges can lead hopeful and fulfilling lives.

Our first project will be to convene the 2019 Child & Adolescent Behavioral Health Summit in May to help educate parents, educators and providers about these issues. We will update the community on the progress we begin there.

Lawrence J. Burns is president and CEO of Children’s Hospital of Michigan Foundation.