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National Alliance on Mental Illness
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National Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day

Capitol Hill Luncheon

May 8, 2006

Statement of Michael J. Fitzpatrick
Executive Director, NAMI

Introduction

NAMI is delighted to be joining our national partners today in honor of the inaugural national children’s mental health awareness day.  We applaud Charles Curie, SAMHSA Administrator, and his dedicated staff for their commitment to raising broader awareness about children’s mental health and to improving the lives of children and adolescents living with mental illnesses and their families.

Reports by the U.S. Surgeon General and President Bush’s New Freedom Commission on Mental Health offer great hope to the millions of children and adolescents in this nation living with mental illnesses and their families.   We have much to celebrate with the success of SAMHSA’s systems of care grant program and the positive outcomes that it has had for children and families in communities around the country.  NAMI applauds SAMHSA’s commitment to building a mental health care delivery system that is child and youth-centered and family-driven. 

We know that through appropriate and early identification, evaluation and treatment – children and adolescents with these illnesses can lead productive lives.  They can achieve success in school, in work and in family life.  They have the chance to thrive in their communities – something that all children want and deserve.

Unfortunately, the overwhelming majority of children with mental illnesses are not identified. They simply fall through the cracks and fail to receive much needed services and supports. 

Research released in June of 2005 by NIMH found that half of all lifetime cases of mental illness begin by age 14 and that despite effective treatments, there are long delays - sometimes decades - between the first signs of symptoms and when people get treatment. That study also revealed that untreated mental illnesses can lead to more severe and difficult to treat illnesses. 

A Focus on Schools

You have all heard the data about how few children are identified and get treatment for their mental illnesses.   I am going to focus on how these children do in school. 

You all remember what it was like to go to elementary, junior and high school.  Now add to that experience mental illness and stigma.

Children with mental illnesses in schools are labeled as "bad" and "poor academic performers."  Their families are often blamed by the schools for their child’s illness.  It’s hard to imagine a teacher blaming a family for their child’s asthma or cancer.  Yet families continue to be blamed for mental illnesses.

As a family organization, we hear every day about the toll that mental illnesses take on the lives of our young people.  Just this month, we heard from two families from as far away as Wisconsin and Washington State.  In both cases, the child suffered from a mental illness and in both cases they were relentlessly teased and bullied by students in school.  The parents expressed grave concerns about the bullying and the lack of understanding about their child’s illness, but the schools took no action.  Tragically, this 7th grade boy and 10th grade girl committed suicide.  Two promising lives taken because schools and families could not work together.

A quick look at the data confirms that these stories are part of a larger, bleak picture.  In a 2001 report to Congress, the Department of Education revealed that almost half of students with a mental disorder dropped out of school.  Students with mental disorders continue to have the highest drop out and failure rates of any disability group.  Those numbers need to change.

There is hope.   We greatly appreciate our nation’s teachers and school professionals and we know that the overwhelming majority of them want to see students reach their full academic and social potential.    

Many educators have told us that they feel ill equipped to meet the needs of students with mental illnesses.  In response to the experiences of both teachers and families, NAMI recently launched a new program:  Parents and Teachers as Allies.  This program is designed to help teachers recognize the early warning signs of mental illness before a child is labeled as "bad" or "dumb."  It helps them communicate with and build alliances with families.  Parents and caregivers share information about the joys and challenges of raising a child with a mental illness.  The program also includes adults with mental illnesses who had their first symptoms as children.  They talk about their days in school and how they were treated.

This program is being piloted in Florida, California, Illinois and Utah.  The response has been very positive.  Educators really want information and this program has taught us a great deal about the challenges facing schools.  Our approach right along has been for families to work side-by-side with school professionals – joining together for positive change.  It puts families in the driver’s seat, consistent with the values and principles that have helped make SAMHSA’s systems of care program work so well for youth and families.

But Parents and Teachers as Allies is just a small program and when 50% of our children are dropping out, we need much much more.

First, we need a place for children and families to go when a child clearly needs an evaluation and treatment.  Too many of our communities do not have an appropriate infrastructure of effective home and community-based services.  The SAMHSA systems of care program has shown us how this can work to benefit children and families but we need more of our communities to develop effective systems of care.  This will take increased funding.

Second, we need more trained mental health professionals, especially in our nation’s schools.  Data from the Department of Education shows that there are approximately 513 students for each school counselor in our schools.  This ratio is more than double the recommended ratio of 250 students for each school counselor.   It is difficult to imagine how a counselor could even know the names of 513 students, let alone how to effectively address their social and academic needs.

We also have a critical national shortage of child psychiatrists.  The Healthcare Crisis Relief Act, currently pending before Congress is designed to help end the workforce shortage of school and community-based child mental health providers.

There are also efforts in a handful of states to transform their state mental health care systems, including child-serving systems.  We greatly appreciate SAMHSA’s commitment to transforming mental health systems across the country consistent with the recommendations included in President Bush’s New Freedom Commission report.  But when only 1 in 5 children with mental illnesses are identified and getting treatment, all states need to be involved in the transformation work.  This will also take increased funding.

Too many kids are being robbed of their potential when they go undiagnosed and untreated.   We simply must implement effective early identification programs and link these children and families to services.  No longer should kids lose critical developmental and school years that simply cannot be recaptured.  

As the data from the SAMHSA systems of care communities shows, investing in effective mental health services can make a world of difference for children and families.  We need to build on this success so that we do not continue to spend money in all of the wrong places.  We appreciate this opportunity to share the first annual Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day with all of you and look forward to working with our national partners, members of Congress and other colleague organizations to improve the lives of children, youth and families.

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To learn more about what NAMI's Child & Adolescent Action Center is doing to improve awareness of mental health issues in the educational system visit the Schools & Education section of our website. To learn more about our Parents & Teachers as Allies program contact Dana Crudo at danac@nami.org or at 703.600.1117.

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