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Rutgers experts help spot signs of incipient mental illness in children

NJBIZ - 9/20/2019

A recent study conducted by the New Jersey Poison Control Center at Rutgers University revealed that since January 2018, one hundred New Jersey preteens have attempted suicide by drug overdose and that experts are frequently called to assist in the medical management of these cases by both the public and health care facilities.
Dr. Diane Calello, executive and medical director of the Poison Control Center, said this trend should be a wake-up call to the fact that young children in the state are attempting suicide by overdose at an increasing rate.
Kelly Moore, program manager for the Children’s Center for Resilience and Trauma Recovery at Rutgers University Behavioral Health Care, part of Rutgers Health and RWJBarnabas Health, trains adults who have regular contact with young children, including teachers, coaches and parents to recognize the warning signs of serious mental illness and suicidal thoughts and to connect them with the help they need.
The center, a category three center for The National Child Traumatic Stress Network, works with the School of Nursing at Rutgers, the School of Social Work, the New Jersey Children’s System of Care under the Department of Children and Families and the Graduate School of Applied and Professional Psychology at Rutgers.
“We are training providers both the current and developing work force through a couple of different strategies but we train providers that are working with very young children and their families that are impacted by complex trauma,” said Moore.
She said that they look at children from ages 11 and younger and are training providers that work with them on evidence-based practice or evidence informed practice to help families impacted by trauma.
Moore said that there has been an increase in what experts learn about suicides in young people. She cited a recent article in the Journal for the American Medical Association Pediatrics that showed the suicide rate is roughly two times higher for black children ages 5 to 12 compared with white children of the same age. In contrast, from ages 13 to 18, that number reverses with a higher percentage of attempts by white children than black children.
Moore said that beyond the risk of suicide, studies have shown that early trauma and stress can lead to long-term mental and physical health problems in adulthood.
“We know that this area of suicide risk and mental health in young people is something we need to address and deal with.”
In addition, Moore said that often parents are reluctant to seek help when they first suspect a problem out of a fear that their children will be labeled with a mental health related diagnosis. This could add to the child’s depression or anxiety. Another barrier, Moore said, is the limited number of psychiatrists who treat young children.
Early warning signs
Moore said that young children age 10 and under will often show signs related to their mental health and well-being through their behavior.
“They may not have the words to express how they are feeling you need to look for behavioral changes. For example, kids with anxiety often present to the nurses office with symptoms like my stomach hurts, headache, lethargic, low energy sometimes their anxiety may be expressed with anger or upset or irritable, trouble sleeping.”
Moore said when a teacher or parent notices a change in behavior from the child’s normal behavior they should be attentive to what might be going on. Sometimes, Moore suggested, a child’s temperament changes, which could be an indication that something is going on.
Moore said the National Council on Behavioral Health points out that there is about a 10-year lag between the onset of symptoms to when a patient actually goes into treatment.
“That’s a lot of time the more that people are aware of those kinds of issues and the more that we are talking about mental illness the sooner we can recognize those symptoms and get help for them.”
Moore said a new law signed recently by Gov. Phil Murphy mandating that mental health be a part of the curriculum for grades K-12 is important to the development of children and in being able to understand how to recognize mental health issues.
Despite some progress, Moore said the stigma related to mental illness remains a barrier.
“Stigma is still something that we have to deal with because when mental illnesses makes it into more of a national conversation there still are terms used like crazy, nutcase, whacko.”
Moore added: “The words we use to describe people with mental illness and what we might falsely attribute to people that have dealt with mental illness that they are violent or dangerous that kind of rhetoric doesn’t necessarily lend itself to people feeling confident about getting services.”
Moore believes that attitudes about mental health are changing because there is more communication and discussion about it.
“Recognizing that trauma and early exposure to traumatic experiences can impact who you are as a person and how you are later on in life. It’s get-ting better but we still have a lot of work to do.”
Bigger role for schools
Moore said Rutgers has school-based clinical programs where a whole department is dedicated to providing mental health treatment to children with clinicians based in more than 60 schools around the state.
“We support the school and the work that they are doing, but we are also a resource to the family by being able to provide services in the school where the kids don’t have to go somewhere else to get a therapist.” But she emphasized that schools have to be interested in partnering with Rutgers program for the program to be effective.
“School is an ideal place for these conversations to start, even if there is a way to increase the amount of funding that supports school-based clinical mental health clinics. It’s an easy way to connect kids with services and school-based providers working closely with these families have a connection and can talk to the teachers, talk to the coaches and administrations.”
Moore said people in the Burlington County area can also sign up for training programs that will help them understand how to quickly identify and refer kids that are at risk for suicide or mental health problems via a recently awarded grant to the center. One of the training programs they use is Youth Mental Health First Aid, an eight-hour course sponsored by the National Council on Behavioral Health.
“We received a grant last year in Burlington County and we were able to partner with Burlington Township and Willingboro Township and the community and we are working with them training the school district, law enforcement and churches in youth mental health first aid and training to help recognize and prevent suicide risk in youth,” Moore said.
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