I decided to sit down with my friend Dr. Harold Koplewicz, President of the Child Mind Institute and a child and adolescent psychiatrist.
What follows is an excerpt from our discussion. You can read the full interview here at PROJECT375.org.
BM: Obviously mental health is inextricably linked to both your life's work and mine. I've had my own battles and as you know, it took a lot of trial and error to get the right diagnosis and treatment. Why is it particularly important to get help to kids with mental health disorders as early as possible?
HK: You know, Brandon, you are one of my heroes. You've accomplished so much despite all the barriers in your way -- but it didn't have to be so hard. Your life could have been significantly easier if some of the behavioral symptoms you struggled with had been addressed earlier, and before your life was in crisis. And there are many kids who get stuck behind those barriers of mental health and learning disorders and don't reach their potential.
Not enough people realize that three quarters of all psychiatric illness has its onset before the age of 24, and half before 14. And because kids are still developing, the earlier treatment is started, the better the prognosis. Working with children is a no-brainer.
BM: How do mental health challenges affect children in school, and affect our teachers' ability to teach?
HK: If you can't sit still and you can't focus, if you're too anxious and worried to pay attention, if you're too sad to have enough energy, it's going to interfere with your success in school. And if you go to school and experience failure on a regular basis, after a while you're going to want to tune out or escape. That's one of the reasons kids with mental health disorders drop out of high school more often than other kids. And one child who can't function well, who's not following the teacher's lead, can distract and disrupt a whole class.
BM: One of the most troubling things about kids with mental health issues is how many of them end up in jail. Why is that, and what can we do about it?
HK: For young people who have untreated psychiatric illness, there's almost a pipeline to prison. Let's say they drop out of high school and they're out on the street, which is all too common. They're more likely to get into trouble because they are more impulsive and less able to create the structure they need for themselves. They're thrown into chaos, and often into jail.
The upshot is that more than 70 percent of the inmates in the juvenile justice system meet criteria for a psychiatric disorder. And believe me, the treatment they get behind bars is not a recipe for success.
BM: A string of mass public shootings is fueling a negative conversation about mental health in the media. It really frustrates me that the only time the media seems to talk about mental illness is when they're describing a shooter -- it's just not a fair portrayal of those of us who have mental health issues. It's shameful that we only talk about mental illness in the context of a tragic event. I want to change that -- the question is how?
HK: That's the million-dollar question. Basically, Americans still have trouble recognizing how real and common mental health disorders are -- in everyone, but particularly in children and adolescents. We have 17 million young people who have had a psychiatric disorder -- far more than those affected by cancer, AIDS, diabetes, and food allergies combined -- and yet they're in the shadows, unacknowledged.
It's troubling when you look back and see how isolated some of these shooters were, and how for many reasons they failed to get the help they needed. However, having a psychiatric illness does not put you at a higher risk for hurting others -- if anything, it puts you at a significantly higher risk for hurting yourself. It's unfair to stigmatize these people more by tagging them as killers.
How do we change this? Having heroes like you, Brandon, talk about their struggles and their success is very important. These courageous acts of storytelling really help the 17 million kids out there and, I think, the entire population recognize how real, common, and most importantly treatable these disorders are. And when people speak up the way you are, they take that scary power of stigma away. They make it possible to think, "If Brandon can deal with this, I can, too."
BM: I am also troubled by some of the discourse I hear out on the presidential campaign trail and elsewhere in politics -- about how "sickos" are to blame for all of these bad things. It's demoralizing. I contrast that with the efforts of politicians like Rep. Tim Murphy, who is sponsoring some well-reasoned legislation to improve mental health care in America. Why is mental health such a confusing political issue?
HK: As you and I both know, mental illness, access to care, proper diagnosis, the stigma and shame that can surround families struggling with these challenges--this isn't simple stuff. And I hate to say it, but the early stages of the party primaries in this country are not where we find the most nuanced thinking about complicated issues.
I wish that the level of discourse and the subject matter on the campaign trail were respectful, constructive, and goal-oriented. It isn't yet. READ MORE...