A well-known saying goes like this: “A good way to measure the greatness of a nation is to see how it treats its most vulnerable citizen.”

So, in America, what group of citizens do you believe is most vulnerable? Most people usually pick either the elderly or children. That is, the two extreme ends of our human lifespan, the old and the young, are the most fragile, at risk, or vulnerable populations.

Now, let’s answer a second question. Which group, the elderly or the young, receives the most money for health care? The answer the elderly, and by a huge proportion (some estimate the ratio is $10/each senior citizen, vs $1 for each child).

Next is the third and final question. In the category of children, which subgroup is the most vulnerable? The answer is that United States citizens under age 10 (children) who also have a brain-based disease (this is called mental or psychiatric illness).

No amount of repetition of these two phrases, “Children are America’s most precious resource,” and “We must act in the best interest of children,” will ever wash away the stain of a disturbing cultural reality. We, as a nation, do not put the needs of children first.

Today, all people who work with children — teachers, school administrators, day care providers, speech pathologists, athletic coaches — know that their reward does not come from their salary, but from the rewards that come from working with children and helping them grow.

This was what helped me decide to earn my first specialty in child psychology. Like my grandfather and father before me, I wanted to continue to fight to help children receive better health care. And in my career in psychology, this meant struggling to help children receive better mental health care.

Consider these facts:

1. In America, one child in evewry 10 has a mental health problem severe enough to cause impairment, but only 20 % receive treatment.

2. 20 % of all adolescents (age 13-17) show signs of depression severe enough that they are unable to participate in their normal activities for more than two weeks in a row.

The Surgeon General’s National Action Agenda in 2000 reported a “public crisis in children’s mental health care.” This “public health crisis in children’s mental health care” refers to the following:

1. Poor financial support for children’s psychiatric care.

2. Few child mental health centers, especially in rural areas.

3. A fragmented and broken mental health system where children who have both a severe mental illness, and have violated the law, end up in what has been called “America’s dumping ground and largest psychiatric facility” — jail or prison.

I often become frustrated over the huge obstacles standing in the way of my trying to help children. So, I resort to my standby helper: Solvitur Ambulando: “It is solved by walking” (Saint Augustine).

So, while walking in my neighborhood when my daughter was 7, I asked to hold my daughter’s hand while we walked together. She stopped, bent down and picked something up from the ground as she said, “Dad, see that huge oak tree there? It grew from this tiny acorn.”

As we walked, my heart relaxed, and as the fog in my mind evaporated, I heard my brain repeat over and over ... 0 to 7, 0 to 7. If we, as a nation, put all our resources into the first seven years of our children’s life, what would happen? If from birth to 7 years old, every child in America had these resources — nutritious food, safe neighborhoods, good education, quality medical and mental health care — then what would happen?

Just like the tiny acorn which grows into a mighty oak tree, so too can America’s children grow and develop into strong and healthy adults.

I believe that the greatness of our nation will be revealed when we, as a society, begin to educate ourselves about the importance of mental health care for children. Quality information about childhood mental illness would get rid of the myths, misconceptions, and discrimination against mental health care for our children.

(The content of this article is for educational purposes only, and should not be used as a substitute for treatment by a professional.)

Dr. Richard Elghammer is a clinical psychologist in Danville and practices at the Elghammer Family Center. He received specialty training in child, adolescent and family psychology at Riley’s Children’s Hospital in Indianapolis, and completed his clinical internship at Indiana University School of Medicine.

Recommended for you