According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) there are over four million children and adolescents in the United States suffering from a serious mental disorder that creates significant difficulties at home, at school and with their peers.  In addition NAMI reports that twenty-one percent or one in five children ages 9 to 17 have a diagnosable mental or addictive disorder that causes at least minimal impairment. Even though the numbers are staggering NAMI reports that only about twenty percent of these children and adolescents are identified and receive mental health treatment.

Treatment, usually a combination of psychotherapy (a type of counseling) and medication, has been proven effective in treating many of these illnesses. With this being the case one may wonder why there are such low numbers of children and adolescents receiving treatment. A study published by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation attributes the cause to chronic funding shortages, a disconnect in the system in coordinating these services and stigma around mental illness. While people are quick to take medication and seek treatment for physical illnesses there is still unnecessary stigma around mental illness that prevents identification and treatment, particularly in children.

The Affordable Care Act is expected to help resolve some of the obstacles by expanding funding for prevention, early intervention and treatment. North Carolina is one of five states that is already looking ahead and enacting policies to improve this care. One change is that pediatricians are now able to provide 16 mental health visits to patients with Medicaid. While some parents may be reluctant to take their children to a mental health clinic, with the care being provided initially by the pediatrician, the stigma may be reduced. Even though this is a step in the right direction, unless there are also mental health professionals in the pediatric practices, the children and adolescents may still need additional treatment elsewhere.

For treatment to take place, the first thing is the identification and knowing what symptoms are just part of normal childhood development and what things may indications of more serious problems. The family, pediatrician or other adult is generally the primary source of information to assist with the accurate diagnosis and treatment. Symptoms to look for include feelings of sadness or withdrawal that lasts at least two weeks or severe mood swings that cause problems in relationships at home or school. Parents should also be aware of feelings of overwhelming fear for no reason, sometimes with a racing heart or rapid breathing. They may also have worries or fears that are intense enough to interfere with their daily activities. Additionally, they may exhibit behavioral changes such as out-of-control behaviors, fighting frequently, or expressing desires to harm others. Parents may also observe difficulty focusing, sitting still which makes it difficult to perform in school. Another sign could be unexplained weight loss, a loss of appetite which may indicate an eating disorder. Parents should also pay close attention when children threaten or express feelings about suicide or self harm.

In Western North Carolina there are a number of agencies that may be able to help your child or adolescent. If you would like to find out about services and supports available please contact: NAMI Haywood (serving Haywood and Jackson) at 828-456-6897 or NAMI Appalachian South (serving Clay, Cherokee, Graham, Swain, Macon and Jackson) at 828-369-7385.

Additional information can be obtained from the Evergreen Foundation. The mission of the Evergreen Foundation is to improve access to and public awareness of quality prevention, treatment, and support services by the provider community to individuals and families with intellectual/developmental disabilities, behavioral health, and/or substance abuse needs in Cherokee, Clay, Graham, Haywood, Jackson, Macon and Swain counties. To learn more about the Evergreen Foundation call 828-456-8005.