THE BLOG
10/16/2013 12:24 pm ET | Updated Dec 16, 2013

Happy Mental Health Day To All

On October 10, the Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) Committee on Children's Rights at the United Nations commemorated World Mental Health Day, an official U.N. international day, with a side event on children's psychosocial wellbeing. The event was titled, "Children's Health and Psychosocial Wellbeing as Foundational Factors in Sustainable Development," and featured many distinguished panelists including Scott Bloom, Director of School Mental Health Services in NYC, Kerron Norman, Vice President for Community Based Programs at ANDRUS, Saji Thomas, UNICEF Child Protection Specialist and Roseanne Flores, Associate Professor in the Department of Psychology at Hunter College and UN/NGO representative for the American Psychological Association (APA). Their perspectives covered local, national and international childhood experiences in relation to mental health. I was happy to hear that each one of the panelists talked about the need for more mental health services and the importance of reducing the stigma, shame and taboo of mental health across all cultures. By providing more services and reducing the stigma, we can create a healthier and happier society for all.

Mr. Scott Bloom oversees the mental health of 1.2 million students in NYC. To my surprise, as well as the audience, there are only two people, Bloom and one other, in the Mental Health office of the NYC Department of Education. This mirrors the global shortage of mental health service providers including psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers and occupational therapists. For almost half of the world, there is only one psychiatrist per 200,000 people or more. This number doesn't include other mental health care providers who are trained in the use of psychosocial interventions. The number of psychologists, social workers and occupational therapists per 200,000 are even rarer. Mr. Bloom mentioned that one out of 10 children have a serious emotional disturbance and only 30 percent of all teens who need mental health services receive it. These figures show that there is a huge gap between the need for mental health treatment and actually providing the services.

Through my experience as a mental health provider in New York City working with the immigrant population, each passing day it becomes clearer that admitting a need for mental health services is crucial. More than 60 percent of NYC's population is foreign-born or a first-generation immigrant. Many immigrants are raised to have collectivist mindsets, while living in the United States we are taught to have an individualistic mindset. Conversations surrounding mental health are not openly accepted in collectivist cultures. This transfers over to their children who usually go to a multicultural school. They are not equipped to adjust to the cultural differences. There is plenty of stress that goes hand-in-hand with living in this kind of setting. I strongly believe that we all need to invest in the mental health needs of all of our school systems by providing on-site services that are easily accessible to students. This will help normalize mental health outreach. We also need to increase mental health services that incorporate cultural competency and the training of clinicians.

Ms. Kerron Norman introduced a new one-year project initiated in the Mount Vernon, NY school district in Westchester County, "Creating Sanctuary in Mount Vernon Schools." Mount Vernon is known to have extremely high crime rates. She reported how this program would tackle early signs of students' problematic behaviors by improving classroom management, decreasing student suspensions and unfounded calls to Child Protective Services (CPS) and reducing the number of children being placed in special education classes. One of the ways to create a trauma-sensitive environment is to change the script from what we usually ask, "What's wrong with you?" to, 'What happened to you?" Perhaps this model can also help to reduce the stigma attached to talking about mental health and initiate open dialogue.

The Child Protection Specialist from UNICEF, Mr. Saji Thomas, who recently returned from Syria, shed light on his field experience working with children in war zones. More than four million children are affected by the conflict in Syria. With more than 3000 schools damaged or destroyed, the dropout rate has been increasing. Shockingly, he reported that even in the midst of fighting and bombing, there were still children active in the playgrounds. These children have experienced the trauma of displacement, extreme violence and the destruction of homes and communities. UNICEF has only been able to provide counseling for the emotional and psychological needs of about 470,000 of these children.

Professor Roseanne Flores from Hunter College focused on child development from birth to five years old, before they entered school. She examined the relationship between environmental risk factors and a child's early learning skills. She provided information that shows toxic stress experienced in early childhood at home has been found to be associated with harmful psychosocial outcomes. A child's first learning experience comes from the home while society provides a secondary learning experience. Home visiting programs are one way to support and improve young children and their families' rights to psychosocial wellbeing.

I agree with Professor Flores and the idea of home visits. It is important to keep a family's cultural background in mind while doing these home visits. Within the immigrant population, for many youth and their families, psychology is unknown to them. In addition to knowledge about early childhood development, it is necessary to introduce psychology to them at an early age through these home visits. From my experience teaching A.P. psychology to immigrant youth, students expressed profound gratitude to what they learned and a desire to have been exposed at a younger age.

I am worried to know that the World Health Organization (WHO) has estimated that within the next two decades, unipolar depression will be the leading cause of disease burden. If we don't take steps to improve our school systems locally and globally, can you imagine what society would be like? One day our children will be parents, and if we don't provide them a healthy environment and the right education, how can we create a sustainable future?