With this first week of May being Children’s Mental Health Awareness Week, the question might be “How are we, as a society, doing when it comes to being aware and caring about the mental health of our kids?”
Licensed Psychologist and Registered Nurse Dr. Rita Gray, Director of Clinical Training for the Will County Health Department’s Behavioral Health division, says adults taking action when children are mistreating each other can be one of the most important factors in preventing mental health problems, as well as other issues like drug and alcohol addiction, down the road.
Dr. Gray says it is especially important when it comes to bullying and cyberbullying issues. “I really think that if more adults were involved and taking action we would be better off. There are still cases of looking away. It could be cowardice, minimizing the situation, or perhaps giving it the ‘benefit of doubt’ that the situation will work itself out.”
Dr. Gray added that sometimes she will have a child in therapy for behavioral or drug issues, and it may not be until the third session or later that they admit severe bullying is in their background. Gray says when it comes to adults being involved and taking action; whether or not they do, even with their own kids, might be due to their own backgrounds.
“You can never take yourself out of it,” Gray said. She explained that a victim might feel shame or guilt as an adult, and therefore be in denial that it is also happening to their own child. Or they might be hesitant to talk to another adult about it for fear of a reaction along the lines of, “Well, I’m not surprised, I can see why you might have been bullied.”
But both Gray and Michelle Zambrano, a childhood and adolescence program manager for the health department, say that adults need to face their regrets about the past, or fear about getting involved now, and tell someone what is going on. It is for the good of the mental health of children, they say, as well as society as a whole. And they also remind everyone that if you know someone is being mistreated, or being terribly bullied on social media, speak to a teacher or adult at the school they attend.
“When you hear about quotes like, ‘You’re such a loser, why don’t you kill yourself, and then something happens, you can’t just say ‘I thought they were just kidding,’ said Gray.
We cannot have that kind of denial.”
Zambrano says it may take the next generation or two for the level of awareness about the effect of bullying and cyberbullying on children’s mental health to get where it should be. But she does have praise for what is happening today. “This is definitely an era of expanded knowledge. We are realizing the ramifications of unchecked bullying, and we are doing something. There’s a lot less tolerance for it, a lot more training in schools for faculty and students, and more of a safety net.”
Zambrano says even if some kids scoff at some of the things they hear in student anti-bullying programs, even if a handful of kids change their thinking and no longer “just stand by” the effort is worthwhile. And others who hear the program just might figure it out later in life. “Maturity brings sensitivity,” Zambrano said. “Especially when it comes to having their own children.”
It must also be remembered that the behavior of adults and parents, not just peers, can have a huge impact on a child’s mental health. “I always say,” said Gray, “that ‘if parents knew better, they would do better.’ For example I had someone recently ask in a parenting class, ‘isn’t it okay to hit my child with a belt? I don’t use the buckle end.’ This kind of punishment can be very bad for a child, especially if they are also battling a diagnosed mental illness.”
Dr. Gray says a right way to discipline a child can be removing an important privilege, but for a certain amount of time. “Taking something away for two months really doesn’t work. You need to make it short amount of time, but monitor it and make sure the rule is followed. I always say, parenting, when it is done right, really is the hardest job in the world.”
Zambrano says if a child has an abusive situation at home or is in a parental situation the involves constant negativity and admonishment that is affecting their mental health, there are ways to find out. “If we are doing family therapy, standard procedure for us is to bring in the children by themselves at first. We initiate some ‘play therapy’ so we can build up trust, and then the kids can look at us and say, ‘here’s my issues.’ Then, we have the parents in the mix afterwards.”
On another point, when it comes to protecting the mental health of children, Dr. Gray has very high praise for the Will County Children’s Advocacy Center, created by Will County State’s Attorney Jim Glasgow. The Center allows children who suffer or witness physical or sexual abuse to testify in a friendly setting, and then have that testimony admissible in court. Dr. Gray says the Advocacy Center also provides children in need with key components such as special counseling or medical insurance.
Finally, a story Dr. Gray recalled from her own life provides a perfect metaphor for the need to speak up. She remembered hearing what turned out to be a gas explosion when she was a young mother. She looked out from her apartment, but did not call 9-1-1, because she figured “someone else” or “a lot of other people” would. But she was later told by her brother, a firefighter, that she absolutely should have called and not assumed other people would. She says that same attitude must be taken when it comes to the bullying of children. If you know about it, take action yourself.
If you are concerned about a situation, you can call the Will County Health Department Child and Adolescent Services intake number, at 815-727-5911. You can also go to willcountyhealth.org and click on the “Children and Families” tab for information on Health Department services.