The 2009 study by the National Research Council and Institute of Medicine, “Preventing Mental, Emotional and Behavioral Disorders Among Young People: Progress and Possibilities,” urges an important action.
Here is an excerpt from the preface:
“This report calls on the nation - its leaders, its mental health research and service provision agencies, its schools, its primary care medical systems, its community-based organizations, its child welfare and criminal justice systems - to make prevention of mental, emotional, and behavioral disorders and the promotion of mental health of young people a very high priority. By all realistic measures, no such priority exists today…
...Mental, emotional and behavioral disorders incur high psychological and economic costs for the young people who experience them, for their families and for the society in which they live, study, and will work. Yet there is significant imbalance in the nation’s efforts to address such disorders. People await their emergence and then attempt to treat them, to cure them if possible, or to limit the damage they cause if not. This happens with any number of expensive interventions, ranging from psychiatric care to incarceration. Myopically, we devote minimal attention to preventing future disorders or the environmental exposures that increase risk.”
This indictment has a bit of a sting to it. Unfortunately, while in our community(s), there are heroic efforts being made, we still focus most of our efforts on crisis response.
I tell a story to volunteers at the beginning of an Adult Advisor Sources of Strength training. It goes like this. Once there was a woman who lived in a village not far from a beautiful waterfall. Every day, she would walk in the woods by the river, enjoying its beauty and peace. One day, while she was taking her usual walk, she heard someone in the water calling for help. She went to the shore and saw a young person about to go over the falls. She jumped in and pulled him to safety.
The next day, on her walk, the same thing happened. But this time, just as she finished her rescue, she heard another voice and had to jump back in the water. It became a regular feature of her walk and the numbers increased weekly. Soon, instead of a peaceful walk in the woods, she led the townsfolk in building systems to save kids from going over the falls. Many were saved. Some were not. No matter how hard they tried, some kids went over the falls.
One day, in the midst of their furious and heroic efforts, she left and began walking up stream. Her partner lifesavers called to her incredulously, “Where are you going? We have urgent work to do here, you can’t leave!”
She replied, “I’m going upstream to see if I can keep kids from falling into the water.”
Her perspective mirrors the one in the excerpt above. Prevention work and promotion work will eliminate a lot of downstream work. Of course we need to respond well to kids in crisis. But if we don’t address causes, we will never reduce the numbers of kids in crisis. The numbers will go up. It is healthy, resilient kids who stay out of the water or can swim to shore before the falls. We need to invest ourselves in systems that grow crisis resistant youth.
As the 2009 report says, this work is done in many places. Leadership, schools and community-based organizations are three places where we have influence. Study after study has shown that the most powerful prevention efforts are based on the presence of Caring Adults in the lives of kids. While we have excellent teachers and school staff, good leadership and effective community-based organizations - we simply do not have enough involved adults. Our ratio is not up to the task. The impact of a Caring Adult happens in the context of relationship. When a young person feels safe, known and important, the majority of mental, emotional and behavioral issues subside.
We need to mobilize a network of Caring Adults.
Since we already have systems in place where our kids are welcomed and expected, what we need is collaboration between organizations and individuals to increase the ratio of kids to adults by adding more adults who have tools and capacity to share healthy relationship. We need more volunteers from our community. If we get them we can improve the mental, emotional and behavioral health of our kids. If we don’t things will get worse. It’s that simple. We need to show up in our kids lives as a community.