Erica D. Kelsey
When I met my 14-year-old patient for the first time, he was coming in because of symptoms of severe depression and anxiety. He was self-harming and contemplating suicide. I asked him how long he had been experiencing his symptoms and he told me it had been over two years and getting progressively worse. His symptoms had only recently gotten to the point that his family could see there was a significant problem. Like many families, they did not recognize the early signs of depression and were unsure of what to do next.
Addressing mental health concerns is complex. Stigma, a lack of understanding, transportation issues, financial concerns, provider availability, health insurance and lack of support are all barriers that our youth and families face when navigating treatment. Because of these barriers, situations like the one above are far too common. Every time I treat a child with severe mental illness, I wonder …
What could have been done sooner? What more can we do as a community to better support our youth?
At the Boys & Girls Clubs of St. Joseph County, we are working toward a better way, because all young people deserve it. Through our new Emotional Well-Being Program, we are focused on providing preventative mental health services to Club kids so they have the ability to cope with life’s challenges, thrive and succeed.
We teach our kids to prepare for so many things in life: what to do in case there is a fire, an intruder, how to learn, how to be a good teammate and leader. Why don’t we help them prepare their emotions − what to do when they feel stressed, overwhelmed, angry or anxious?
Reactive mental health care should not be the status quo. We do not have enough resources in our community or country for everyone to have the treatment they need if we continue with this model. We can create cultural change through prevention and help young people succeed and develop lifelong skills to be able to recognize and manage their mental health.
At the Boys & Girls Clubs, we are excited to be able to offer our preventative services to the 2,500 Club kids we serve annually without the barriers of insurance or diagnoses. Here, we can offer resiliency training, conflict resolution, anger coping and suicide prevention. We can reduce the stigma of mental health care by making it part of a child’s normal routine. We can eliminate access issues for families, such as transportation and finances.
Change cannot happen overnight, but if the culture around mental illness doesn’t shift we are failing as a country and community. We need to rise up, empower our kids and invest in critical resources. We need to talk about mental health, model positive coping and continue to break the stigma. As Maya Angelou once said, “I can be changed by what happens to me, but I refuse to be reduced by it.”
Erica D. Kelsey is director of Emotional Well-Being at the Boys & Girls Clubs of St. Joseph County.