Learning from the Newtown tragedy – we need to get literate about mental health

January 03, 2013

Guest Blog Post – Jennifer A. Oppenheim, PsyD, Public Health Advisor, Coordinator, Project LAUNCH
, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration

  • A week after the Newtown shooting I am dumbfounded that it has ONLY been a week. When I am at work I find that I am very preoccupied with this event. Not because I am dwelling on the facts, but because Newtown has so starkly highlighted how much work we have to do to fix the way this country addresses mental health.

    If anything good is to come from this tragedy, perhaps it will be a call to action to get literate about mental health. A realization that we need to begin talking about social/emotional skills, and social/emotional development from the earliest days of a child’s life, so that parents and all professionals who work with young children are not only nurturing these skills, but also recognizing when children are not developing them. If a child care provider discovers that a child is having trouble hearing, or has developed a rash, he/she knows that this can’t be ignored, and knows where to turn for help. If a child is having behavior problems, or is displaying unusual sadness, fearfulness or aggression, it should be just as critical for adults to respond and to get answers. Whether it is through screening, training, on-site mental health consultation, mental health staff embedded in pediatric care, parenting education (or all of the above) – all the adults in the lives of young children can and should be educated to recognize distress, provide appropriate support, and access professional help.

    If we can build mental health literacy into the health literacy of parents and caregivers of young children, then perhaps we can raise a generation where every American understands that mental health is a continuum (just like every other facet of health), and that people range from wellness to illness, and often fall at different points along that continuum at different times in their lives. And perhaps we can raise a generation in which individuals recognize, understand and seek treatment for emotional distress in just the same way that they would recognize and seek treatment for a toothache or an earache: without shame and with urgency. And maybe when people have that knowledge and understanding of their own mental well being, then they will also be able to take better care of each other. Most people will stop and help if they see someone on the street having a heart attack. So too should we expect that members of our society will be able to recognize, will acknowledge and will act out of the same compassion for someone who is experiencing symptoms of severe psychological distress.

    I like how Victoria Costello put it in her reflections on the Newtown shooting in a recent Morning Zen post:

    “The most important change we can make to do the right thing for our children… is a greater awareness of the subtle and not so subtle signs that can tell us that someone may be suffering from a mental illness for which they need our help; indeed, that they may already be in grave trouble….

    In order to make any positive legacy come of this tragedy there must be far greater amounts of money and attention given to public mental health. There must be greater regulation of health insurance companies to deliver on the promise of parity for mental health services. There is much to do, and all of it must proceed while we continue to mourn the loss of these beautiful children and their brave teachers.”

    The work that is done each day as part of Project LAUNCH leads the way towards realizing this vision. Raising understanding of social/emotional development and wellness through public education, parent support, interdisciplinary workforce development, and efforts to bring mental health expertise into every setting where young children are found are critical components of a healthier society. May this horrific tragedy give us each renewed focus and energy in our work, and more and better opportunities to reach out to all of our partners and share the mission and the vision of Project LAUNCH.

oppenheimJennifer Oppenheim, PsyD is a Public Health Advisor in the Center for Mental Health Services (CMHS) at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).  She is a Federal Project Officer for Project LAUNCH and serves as the Program Coordinator. Dr. Oppenheim has also worked as a Project Officer on the National Child Traumatic Stress Initiative at SAMHSA. Prior to joining the federal government Dr. Oppenheim served as a consultant to multiple child and family initiatives, with an emphasis on child abuse prevention, violence prevention, early childhood systems reform, and children’s mental health.

You can learn more about Project LAUNCH here. Check it out. They are doing some great work.

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