Growing Pressures Feed Kids’ Mental Health Issues, Expert Says
From the Columbus Dispatch
It’s not your imagination, or mere nostalgia for the good ol’ days: Today’s children and teens have more mental health problems than earlier generations. The reason is a mix of social, environmental, and even dietary factors, but the problem is growing, said experts speaking to the Columbus Metropolitan Club. “We have an honest-to-God epidemic that dwarfs the polio epidemic,” said Dennis Embry, a child psychologist and researcher from Tucson, Arizona. “One out of two of America’s children will have a mental, emotional, or behavioral disorder ... by age 18. That is a fact.” Many young people experience the loss of a friend to suicide by the time they reach adulthood, Embry said. When people now 55 or older were kids, he said, that wasn’t the norm.
The Boat House restaurant was packed for the discussion on teens’ mental health, moderated by former Columbus Health Commissioner Teresa Long, perhaps because it was so timely in this year of the Parkland, Florida, and Santa Fe, Texas, school shootings. In late May, a 10-year-old Akron boy committed suicide, which his family recounted to the Akron Beacon Journal this week — one of a rash of suicides among children in northeastern Ohio this school year.
For one thing, Embry said, children spend less time outside, which affects mental health. He said diet and environment could be exacerbating the situation, such as a lack of Omega 3 fatty acids, shown to prevent depression, along with airborne lead in poorer neighborhoods.
Katherine Reynolds Lewis, a Washington-based author whose book, “The Good News About Bad Behavior”, came out this spring, had her own theories. She pointed out that many kids are essentially “unemployed” in their homes and schools these days. They don’t have a role for which they see meaningful results, whether it’s watching a sibling or some other responsibility. Also, media and technology share some blame, though the panelists didn’t explore this much. “Not just social media,” Lewis said, “but all of our outward focus on who we want to be, like a YouTube star or a reality television star. It’s not intrinsic focus, which is associated with mental health.”
Panelist Olympia Della Flora, principal of Columbus’ Ohio Avenue Elementary School on the Near East Side, was featured in Lewis’ book for the behavior techniques the school has adopted in recent years. It’s a program called the PAX Good Behavior Game, developed by Embry to help schools teach students brain regulation and self-control, which is now used in 38 states.
The children in her school, growing up in a high-poverty neighborhood, experience traumatic events that come with them to school, Della Flora said. “We used to clap to get the kids’ attention, not thinking that it could sound like a gunshot,” Della Flora said. “It could sound like a child who’s getting beaten.” They now use a harmonica to get attention and signal transitions, a much calmer, more peaceful sound, among other changes described in a 2017 Dispatch article.
Lewis said that schools that teach social and emotional development well, including Ohio Avenue, have a few things in common: the children bond strongly with adults, who model behavior. Children have some buy-in, helping to shape the rules for the classrooms. And finally, the schools look at behavior problems as a learning experience, instead of using a system of reward and punishment to get compliance.
“Think of the child who is acting out as missing a skill,” Lewis said.