We must treat illnesses above the neck the same as below the neck.
When we hear that our neighbor’s teenage son has been diagnosed with cancer, or that our colleague’s newborn has a heart defect, we shed some tears—and then we move into action. We bring meals; we offer to take their other kids to soccer games or piano lessons; we raise money so the parents can stay home from work to care for their ailing child. But when we learn that our daughter’s best friend has been hospitalized for depression or that a boy on our son’s basketball team has stopped going to school because of severe anxiety, we’re often at a loss as to how to respond.
Here’s a fact that may surprise you: Although more children suffer from psychiatric illness than autism, leukemia, diabetes and AIDS combined, only one of five with an emotional disturbance gets help from a mental health specialist. Moreover, 50 percent of serious mental illness occurs before the age of 14.
People with mental health problems and addictions, along with their families, often suffer in silence, while people with physical health problems evoke the sympathy and support of others. Why do we continue to treat illnesses above the neck differently than illnesses below the neck?
The sad truth is that there’s still a widespread stigma when it comes to mental health. The result? Parents who need help often wait months and even years to make that first phone call. A parent whose child is diagnosed with cancer doesn’t wait to ask for help. Waiting only happens with mental illness and addiction. Fortunately, more than 60 years after our founding, North Shore Child & Family Guidance Center is still here to fight that stigma and provide help to children in need.
Let me share a few of their stories. We met nine-year-old Joey 14 years ago, a few weeks after his father died in the World Trade Center. We discovered that he was calling his dad’s cell phone number every day. As Joey explained, “I call because, what if he is still alive? I don’t want him to be all alone.”
We met seven-year-old Jeremy two years ago. He came to us holding a large flashlight in his tiny hands. He said he needed it in case the lights went out again, like they did after Hurricane Sandy, when Jeremy lost his toys, his home, his daily routine. And, as Joey before him, he lost his belief that the world is a safe place.
While we do respond to headline stories, we more often are called upon to respond to personal dramas and private disasters that are hidden in plain sight. For example, we met six-year-old Jerome soon after he attempted to jump out a window because, as he said, “Nobody loves me.”
Fifteen-year-old Celeste said the reason that she cuts her arms until they bleed is not to take her life, but to lower her blood pressure. And 14-year-old Maria told us that she lives in a house with a revolving door welcoming men who touch her. Depression, anxiety, fear, child abuse, school refusal, bullying, isolation, drug addiction, domestic violence…we receive more than 100 calls a week and increasing numbers are emergencies.
All across Long Island, mental health agencies are shuttering their doors or they have been acquired by corporate entities with no roots in the community. That’s tragic, because community-based mental health organizations are as essential to the health and well-being of our children as hospitals or schools.
What can you do? First, tell your representatives that you value the mental health organization that serves your community and would like their support to ensure its future. And if you know someone whose child is suffering from a mental health issue, don’t ignore them. Make that phone call. Let them know you care.
Andrew Malekoff is the executive director of North Shore Child & Family Guidance Center, which provides comprehensive mental health services for children from birth through 24 and their families. To find out more, visit www.northshorechildguidance.org.