Mental Health and Childhood Experience
- by Christina Richardson, Ph.D.
At a recent presentation by the Gulf Coast Women’s Center for Nonviolence attendees received data from research showing that children exposed to domestic violence, suicide, or the incarceration of a family member have significantly shorter telomeres, which is a cellular marker for aging, than those in stable households. These telomeres are the caps at the end of chromosomes that keep them from shrinking when cells replicate.
The study conducted by Tulane University found that children exposed to traumatic family events had chromosome damage that is linked to higher risks for heart disease, diabetes, and mental illness. Babies exposed are at risk too. They may not consciously remember the trauma, but their bodies do.
Mind, Body, Spirit
Dr. Ponder was a special education teacher who took on the issue of youth mental health after a nephew took his own life. She sees herself as a Don Quixote helping people with mental health issues. Mental Health 101 for children is her passion. “Fifty percent of all lifetime cases of mental illness begin by age 14, so it is imperative to get help as soon as possible.”
“If I am teaching a class and ask for a show of hands for those who have been touched by cancer, many hands will go up. Not so many if I ask about being touched by mental illness,” Dr. Ponder said. “We need to understand the language of mental health and how to help families be a part of the solution.”
Dr. Ponder teachers youth mental health for the Mississippi Department of Mental Health and she is a certified instructor for the National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI.org). One of the programs she teaches is called NAMI Basics. This is a free six-week program for parents and other caregivers of children and adolescents who have either been diagnosed with a serious mental illness or serious emotional disturbance, or who are experiencing symptoms but have not yet been diagnosed.
Hurricane Katrina was a major event in the lives of adults and children on the Gulf Coast. The Children’s Health Fund has, in the 2010 report listed here, noted that 60 percent of children displaced had serious emotional disorders, behavioral issues, or were experiencing housing instability five years later. These children are 4.5 times more likely to have symptoms consistent with serious emotional disturbance. (See here for more information.)
At the 2nd Annual Mississippi Children’s Mental Health Summit in Jackson, May 2015, sobering facts were presented to the attendees: One in five children suffers from a mental health disorder, yet only 20 percent get treated; 50 percent of students with a mental disorder drop out of high school; One half of all lifelong cases of mental illness begins by age 14; An estimated 90 percent of children who have committed suicide had a diagnosable mental illness; and the estimated annual cost of mental disorders among young people is $247 billion.
For additional facts and figures here is a NAMI Mental Health Fact sheet for children and teens.
Our children are precious to us. Mental health conditions are common among teens and young adults. They develop for complicated reasons and they are not the fault of the young person or their family. Mental health services are available and for young people NAMI has an OK2Talk site.
If you or someone you know would be interested in hearing more about the NAMI Basics or other education programs, Dr. Ponder would be happy to talk to you. Please send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org asking for Dr. Ponder’s contact information.