President Barack Obama wants schools to have more mental health professionals and resource officers in order to better prevent violence. He also wants to provide training to teachers to recognize when young people need help and know how to refer those students to the right mental health services. These goals are smart and welcome. They are also not enough.
That’s because so many troubling behaviors exhibited by young people — whether violence, bullying, drug abuse, self-injury, rage, depression or anxiety — are often rooted in experiences very early in life. If Maine and the U.S. want a long-term plan to help stop children from growing up into killers — or batterers or drug dealers — it must do much more to prevent the trauma of infants and toddlers.
By the time a child reaches kindergarten, it’s often already too late. Maine should, of course, be providing more counselors for older youth, but it should also better train preschool or child-care workers to watch for signs of parents who let conflicts spill into their interactions with their children or who could do more to interact with or read to their babies. Maine can expand home-visiting programs already in place, which focus on improving young children’s environment and educating parents. And it can increase access to quality child care.
Maine must treat its youngest residents with more humanity. Up to 90 percent of public mental health clients have been exposed to trauma, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Being abused or neglected as a child increases the likelihood of being arrested as a juvenile by nearly 60 percent. Multiple studies show that many mental health disorders originate with childhood trauma.
Nearly 3,000 Maine children were the victims of substantiated abuse or neglect in fiscal year 2011, and about half were younger than 5. Could Maine have prevented some of that trauma?
That’s the aim of one program, called Maine Families, which sends home visitors to help families build the skills they need to manage the stress of parenting. The home visitors give priority to adolescent parents, families in poverty and those struggling with substance abuse, mental health issues or violence. They teach positive discipline strategies and help parents understand their children’s behavior and ways to manage their own anxiety and anger.
Children participating in Maine Families are half as likely as children statewide to be victims of substantiated abuse or neglect. In 2011, 100 percent of surveyed participants said their child benefited from the program, which was funded entirely by the Fund for Healthy Maine — tobacco settlement dollars protected by the Maine Legislature to invest in Maine’s health.
The positive aspect of having skilled workers educate families — or child-care personnel or preschool teachers — is that there’s no “diagnosis” or label of “therapy.” Children aren’t traumatized by pulling them out of their environment to access services somewhere else. It’s early intervention. It’s not expensive. And it helps.
A baby who grows up in a home filled with alcohol or drug use; domestic violence; an imprisoned family member; neglect or emotional, physical or sexual abuse; and is not made to feel loved, is at much higher future risk of delinquency, mental health problems, unemployment, homelessness, disease, smoking, suicide, alcoholism, drug abuse and eating disorders. The research has been documented again and again.
Having more counselors and resource officers in schools is a fine idea. But Obama — and Maine leaders — should not forget about the young ones who haven’t yet reached school age. New parents, no matter their background, have such hope for their babies, but so often their living situation, or their own history of abuse, gets in the way. That’s fixable.
They just have to be reached early.