Commentary: Mental health issues of youths must be addressed

A parenting advice columnist missed the mark on how we regard the mental health needs of children.

By Tom Sebastian

Earlier this month, Teresa Rugg of Snohomish wrote to The Herald, taking issue with a syndicated column by John Rosemond that asserted today’s children and teens face increased mental health and suicide issues because of what he claims is modern-day practices of poor parenting.

At best, Rosemond’s article is a take on the well-worn “kids these days” trope. At its worst, it is a harmful expression of denial that has long persisted, keeping mental health issues and suicide in the shadows, and shaming and preventing individuals and families from getting the help they need.

Rugg included Compass Health in a list of behavioral health and medical providers that she suggested might be better-suited to comment on causes, treatment and prevention of mental illness and suicide. We are fortunate to have thoughtful community members such as Rugg who recognize the strong safety net in our area, and honored to be mentioned alongside our peers.

The 750-plus team members of Compass Health take our mission — to help our neighbors facing behavioral health challenges and to eliminate the stigma surrounding these issues — very seriously. We feel it’s important to correct some misperceptions Rosemond’s column may have caused.

First, an individual’s mental health is affected by a variety of complex factors — from life experiences to physiology — not something Rosemond calls “postmodern psychological parenting.”

In fact, recent medical research points to the intertwined relationship between physical and mental health conditions. The connection is so transformational that innovative behavioral health care providers — Compass Health among them — are quickly moving to integrate care, bringing primary care physicians together with mental health professionals to treat the whole person.

Additionally, Rosemond implies that during his high school years, emotional issues and teen suicide were virtually nonexistent and things like counseling have failed to stop a decline in later generations.

Of course, our modern environment gives children and teens different challenges to navigate than their parents and grandparents experienced. But the fact is that many youths struggled with mental health issues 50 years ago and long before — although most did not talk about it, and incidences were under reported.

We know, because we were there. Five decades ago Compass Health was already celebrating our 64th anniversary and operating a residential treatment center for children, along with family counseling and psychiatry services for children and adults throughout the region.

Moreover, evidence tells us that interventions work, and treating children early has the greatest potential to mitigate longer-term issues. Definitive, federally funded clinical trials published in the Archives of General Psychiatry and the New England Journal of Medicine show that combinations of cognitive behavioral therapy and medication improved outcomes for more than 80 percent of adolescents with depression or anxiety, respectively and decreased suicidality.

We see this every day. In 2017, Compass Health served 5,684 youths across Northwest Washington. Kids may come to us with depression, social anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, grief and loss and/or suicidal thoughts.

Youth in crisis are able to transition from intensive mental health treatment or outpatient counseling and build lives filled with meaning, recovery and purpose. Our clinicians help them acquire the skills of daily living — regulating their emotions, evaluating life choices, maintaining family connections and developing healthy relationships.

Outside the clinic, in settings such as Camp Mariposa, children whose lives have been affected by substance abuse also learn how to cope, building their own emotional resilience and supporting their peers along the way.

These successes happen because youths and their families are brave enough to ask for help. Many children, and the celebrities who influence them, are now choosing to talk about their experiences publicly to help raise awareness and reduce stigma. This Sept. 14, Kevin Hines, one of the few to survive a suicide attempt off the Golden Gate Bridge and now a leading voice in suicide prevention and mental health issues, will speak at our annual Building Communities of Hope Gala about his struggles with mental illness as a teen and the critical role that counseling and medication play in his ongoing recovery.

The past half-century has seen a sea change in awareness, treatment and prevention of behavioral health issues and suicide. We encourage those public conversations — and the gateways to treatment they provide — to continue with thoughtfulness, evidence and more nuanced understanding.

For parents, teachers and other adults who interact with teens, a good place to start is Youth Mental Health First Aid classes, which provide strategies to identify signs and help youth struggling with mental illness or suicidal thoughts. More information is available at www.compasshealth.org.

Tom Sebastian is CEO of Compass Health, providing behavioral health care in Northwest Washington.

Editor’s note: Following recent and previous complaints, The Herald has discountinued publication of John Rosemond’s parenting column.

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