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Children's Mental Health Awareness Week 2022: Advocacy Guide & Expert Interview

Addressing mental health concerns is critical at any age, but it is particularly important to address in children and adolescents as it can interfere with development. Dr. Allison Buskirk-Cohen, the chair of the psychology department at Delaware Valley University, shares, “It’s important to address mental health concerns early because otherwise they can easily grow and snowball and impact so many areas of life.

To help raise awareness about children’s mental health issues, the first full week of May is dedicated to Children’s Mental Health Awareness Week. This is an opportunity to spotlight children’s mental health and increase public knowledge about current issues and how to treat them.

Children’s mental health issues include learning disabilities, anxiety, ADHD, and depression. Adolescents can have additional conditions such as major depressive episodes, substance abuse disorder, and suicidal ideation. While some of these may present in younger children, it is very uncommon. However, according to the CDC (2022), not all kids who need mental health help are getting it. Only five in ten kids with behavior issues get treatment, while six out of ten get help for their anxiety, and eight out of ten receive therapy for depression.

There are several categories of trained professionals who can help children with their mental health issues. These include licensed professional counselors, marriage and family therapists, school counselors, pediatric occupational therapists, pediatric psychologists, and pediatric psychiatrists. It can take years of schooling and additional training and education to be prepared to help kids and youth tackle their mental health hurdles.

Keep reading to learn from Dr. Buskirk-Cohen about how to begin working in children’s mental health, the top issues children and adolescents face, how Covid-19 has affected children, and top resources for those working in youth mental health services.

Meet the Expert: Allison Buskirk-Cohen, PhD

Allison Buskirk-Cohen

Dr. Allison A. Buskirk-Cohen is an educator, scholar, and leader in higher education with experience developing educational programs and resources to support student success. She is chair of the psychology department at Delaware Valley University in Doylestown, PA.

Dr. Buskirk-Cohen’s research focuses on how interpersonal relationships influence well-being. Her work has demonstrated the powerful need to connect with others, particularly in education. She recently co-edited the book Cultivating Student Success: A Multifaceted Approach to Working with Emerging Adults in Higher Education. This book provides a holistic collection of practices to academically, socially, and emotionally work with emerging adults.

Mental Health Issues Children Face

According to Dr. Buskirk-Cohen, children’s mental health issues are fairly common. “Recent estimates say that approximately one out of five to one out of every six kids and teens will experience some kind of mental health condition,” she says. “That can range from something specific to a particular situation that they’re going through, or it can be more chronic and long-lasting. But it’s a serious problem facing a lot of youth today.”

Younger children tend to present with different disorders than older children and adolescents. “Things like anxiety and depression are relatively common. We tend to see increases of that in adolescence, but sometimes they do emerge in young children. In turn, a lot of younger children are diagnosed or identified with learning disorders and other behavioral problems. Those can be recognized once kids are in a formal school system,” shares Dr. Buskirk-Cohen.

Unfortunately, the number of children with mental health issues has been increasing. The most recent data available from surveys conducted by the CDC found that the percentage of children aged six to 17 who had ever been diagnosed with anxiety or depression went from 5.4 in 2003 to 8 in 2007, increasing to 8.4 percent in 2011 and 2012.

More recent research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association Pediatrics found that post-pandemic, the numbers can be as high as 25 percent of children and adolescents reporting depression and 20.5 percent reporting anxiety.

Children’s Mental Health and Covid-19

It is undisputed that the pandemic has affected children’s mental health: “For some kids, the pandemic has meant mild disruption, and it’s been frustrating. For other kids, it has been incredibly traumatic where they’ve lost family and friends or their family may have seen huge financial losses. They’ve been isolated, so they might feel very fearful, angry, depressed, all of those kinds of things. There is a big variety of experiences, and certainly, for some kids, it’s had a very negative impact on their mental health,” says Dr. Buskirk-Cohen.

She continues, “For other kids, it may have offered them a break from very hectic lives, a chance to reconnect, be more creative, and be resilient. I hope that people recognize that there’s no one-size-fits-all model for how the pandemic has impacted mental health. Because of this, people need support in very different ways.”

While there are studies that can evaluate the current increase in mental health concerns for children, there is no way to know what the long-term effects are. Dr. Buskirk-Cohen says, “A lot of people have very different and extreme views related to kids’ mental health and the Covid-19 pandemic. And I think it’s important to recognize that the research on this is just getting started. The National Institutes of Health have invested in some wonderful long-term studies, but we don’t know what the long-term effects are because we haven’t gotten there yet.“

Spotting Children’s Mental Health Issues

The key to being able to help children with mental health issues is to be able to notice when a kid is struggling. “It’s really important for parents to know that mental health concerns often look different in kids and teens than in adults. Depression, for example, is one of the most often diagnosed disorders among all humans. Adult depression looks like sadness or hopelessness. In children, it often looks pretty different. Kids who are depressed often appear angry and irritable,” says Dr. Buskirk-Cohen.

And while parents may be an expert on their children, they typically aren’t experts in child development, so it is important to rely on professionals to assess children’s mental health status: “Teachers are an excellent first line of identification as well as pediatricians. Part of what makes them helpful is not only do they have access to screenings and information, but also they’re able to compare one child’s development with that of another group,” she says. “If I’m a parent and have three children, my experience is based on three children. Whereas if I’m a teacher or a pediatrician, I see hundreds of children. That allows for easier identification of where things might be atypical and then being able to refer out to someone who can help.”

Many learning disorders or mental health concerns for kids are identified when they enter school for the first time. “Let’s say that we have a kid entering the formal school system for the first time. They are suddenly in a classroom with maybe 25 or 30 other young children who all have a bunch of energy and might be at different levels of maturity, but are expected to go through a relatively similar set of events throughout their school day,” offers Dr. Buskirk-Cohen.

She continues, “At this time, a kid might be recognized as having dyslexia because the rest of the kids in the classroom are starting to learn how to identify their letters, basic sight words, how to read, and they, in turn, may be struggling. Similarly, you might have a child who’s also having trouble at school, but maybe for very different reasons. Maybe this is a child who has a lot of trouble concentrating. They are aware of everything going on in the room, and they have trouble narrowing in on the one thing that the teacher is going over. So maybe that child is referred out for potential ADHD.”

Children’s Mental Health Treatments

Mental health treatment for children and adolescents must be specialized because they don’t think the same way adults do. “There are all kinds of amazing resources available to treat kids and teens,” says Dr. Buskirk-Cohen. “Mental health professionals will use different creative methods to help uncover what kids are going through. They might use play therapy; they might use art therapy; or they might have some type of animal-assisted therapy. All of those things can help both with the diagnosis and treatment.”

“For example, sometimes children may be reluctant to talk about what’s going on in terms of some kind of bullying situation or even some kind of abuse, but they will often show certain patterns in their play behavior where it becomes very apparent,” adds Dr. Buskirk-Cohen.

“There have been some wonderful programs looking at how children can improve their literacy skills and confidence when they read to dogs. A great mental health professional will really have a big toolbox, where they can draw from to find the best kinds of techniques to help support the kids in the teens that they’re working with.”

Reference the resources section below for more resources on organizations that help train and certify child mental health providers.

Starting a Career in Children’s Mental Health

Getting started in children’s mental health care begins with earning a degree in counseling or a related field. Most practitioners who provide mental health services to children have earned a master’s degree in clinical counseling, psychology, social work, marriage and family therapy, or school counseling. This education can be general studies or focused on children’s mental health. However, most programs include some coursework specific to kids.

Dr. Buskirk-Cohen shares. “Whenever somebody is going through training, part of what’s expected is to take various courses that focus on developmentally appropriate therapeutic techniques for different age groups. Once someone is licensed to begin working as a mental health professional, they’re required as part of maintaining their license to earn a certain number of continuing education credits. So mental health professionals are oftentimes going to conferences, or they’re sitting through workshops, with wonderful organizations out there that specialize in these kinds of creative and fun techniques that counselors can use for working with kids.”

Get Involved with Children’s Mental Health Awareness Week

Children’s Mental Health Awareness Week is an opportunity to bring children’s mental health issues to the forefront and learn more about how to help kids. And it’s not just for kids who are having a hard time: “Awareness events can help by changing perceptions and educating people. A lot of people don’t realize that mental health includes things like positive mental health. So how can we strengthen someone’s resiliency skills? How can we help people identify ways to make their life more meaningful and purposeful? This can be true for somebody who is six years old and someone who’s 60 years old,” says Dr. Buskirk-Cohen.

“Mental health awareness events can help educate people about mental health issues and offer support when people are struggling,” she adds. “There are so many resources that people don’t even know anything about. These events can help promote awareness and end the stigma around it.”

There are many ways to get involved with this advocacy week. Mental health professionals can provide educational materials about children’s mental health to the general public. Community centers can invite counselors to share a talk on how to help kids with their mental health, and clinics can offer free screenings for learning disorders. Members of the general public can take time to educate themselves on kids’ mental health issues with some of the resources below.

Resources for Children’s Mental Health

The best way to learn about children’s mental health is to reach out to nearby resources. “Locally, any Children’s Hospital will have wonderful resources available. You can be connected to them through the web or in person,” encourages Dr. Buskirk-Cohen. “Nationally, there is the National Alliance on Mental Illness. They have some specific pages on their website dedicated to children’s health, which are wonderful. And there’s also the National Council on Mental Well Being. They also have resources dedicated specifically to kids and teens.”

Here is a list of additional resources on children’s mental health:

  • Association for Play Therapy: The APT is a national professional society and credentialing organization for play therapy. They also provide education and training for professionals wanting to learn how to use play therapy.
  • Child Mind Institute: The Child Mind Institute is dedicated to improving the lives of children by providing them with the mental health care they need. They have centers across the country, online educational resources, and a strong referral network for kids outside of their service area.
  • American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry: The AACAP is a professional association for professionals who work in providing psychiatric care to children and adolescents. While only psychiatrists can join the AACAP, they offer a wealth of resources for counselors and parents.

Kimmy Gustafson

Kimmy Gustafson is a freelance writer with extensive experience writing about healthcare careers and education. She has worked in public health, at health-focused nonprofits, and as a Spanish interpreter for doctor’s offices and hospitals. She has a passion for learning and that drives her to stay up to date on the latest trends in healthcare. When not writing or researching, she can be found pursuing her passions of nutrition and an active outdoors lifestyle.