It’s good that we devote a month — May — to mental health. Through these efforts, the community works to build greater awareness about mental health, break down stigma and lend support and hope to those who deal with mental-health issues in their lives. Yet, I find myself hoping for a time when we don’t have a special month for mental health.
Why would a clinical psychologist who is encouraged by the progress that has been made in mental-health awareness over the course of his long career hope for that? Let me start to answer this way: In which month do we recognize medical health?
Obviously, there is no such month. And the reason is that society doesn’t need to be convinced that our physical health is tied to our overall well-being. We assume that flu will lead to missed time at school or work; we know that cancer will require treatment; and we recognize that continued lack of treatment of high blood pressure could result in a stroke or heart attack. And yet despite equally compelling evidence, we often fail to recognize that emotional and behavioral problems have a direct and profound impact on current and future well-being.
Indeed, our health care systems continue to be organized in ways that imply that we move through the world with separate identities — one physical and one psychological, with divided systems of care. But this division is artificial. In reality, we move through the world as a unique, integrated, whole person. And so do the children for whom we care.
While we have much more work to do, at Children’s we recognize that mental health care is health care. This understanding is being validated by a growing body of research that speaks to the powerful interaction of biological, psychological and social factors on the developing brain, gene expression and overall health. We know, for example, that significant and sustained adversity early in life contributes to a wide range of behavioral, learning and health problems throughout development. And there’s an abundance of scientific evidence linking behavioral disorders of childhood to poor physical health throughout the lifespan. Consequently, monitoring risk and responding with appropriate evaluation and treatment for emotional, behavioral and developmental problems is as important as it is for medical problems.
This is why we’re grateful that more than 4,000 families during the past year have turned to Children’s for help when confronted with the challenge of understanding and treating mental-health problems such as anxiety, depression, autism spectrum disorder and ADHD. Additionally, Children’s supports our mental-health professionals as they work to bridge psychological and physical health while working as members of clinical teams ranging from the feeding clinic to the hematology/oncology clinic.
While society still has a long way to go, I am hopeful that increasingly we are viewing and valuing mental health in a more enlightened way. Seldom am I met with skepticism when I speak to a medical audience about the impact of mental health on overall health. The pediatric health care industry is investing in more intensive and robust screening methods to identify potential issues earlier, as well as advancing models for delivering care that integrate mental- and behavioral-health services into medical settings.
I embrace this momentum, while also recognizing that much more work needs to be done before we no longer need a single month devoted to mental health. What will that look like? Children who struggle, for example, with depression will be treated with the same understanding, compassion, and support as those with cancer. Health care systems and insurers will view physical- and mental-health services as equal contributors to the developmental well-being of all of our community’s youth. And families will be able to access mental-health services as readily as any other essential health care services.
In the meantime, I join with others in recognizing this month as an opportunity to shine a light on mental health and a way of letting the children and families we see every day know that they have our support.
Mike Troy, Ph.D, LP, is the medical director of Behavioral Health Services at Children’s Hospitals and Clinics of Minnesota.