A Mental Health Checkup

by Amelia Anderson

For ourselves and for our families! In terms of New Years Resolutions, how often do we consider the state of our own mental health? The truism, “Prevention is better than cure,” applies to mental well-being as well as physical,

“When we think about cancer, heart disease or diabetes, we don’t wait years to treat them. We immediately treat the first stage of disease to reverse symptoms of persistent cough, high blood pressure or high blood sugar. This procedure should also be followed when dealing with mental aberration, claims Mental Health America, a national non-profit founded in 1909 to address the needs of those living with mental illness.

This applies to children as well as adults. “The onset of more than 50 percent of all mental illness occurs before the age of 14, and 75 percent of mental illness manifests before the age of 24,” says William Arroyo, M.D., associate medical director of the Los Angeles Department of Mental Health.

So, a wife who suffered abuse as a teen, may be diagnosed with bipolar disorder later. “Ultimately, all mental illness starts in the formative years. It stems from loneliness, acute or chronic abuse or trauma, and stress can exacerbate it. By dealing with the issue in time, you can help nip it in the bud.”

Even homelessness has been related with childhood trauma. And prolonged stress on the mother of an unborn child in utero, can directly affect the developing brain, priming that child for a lifetime of adversity.

The CDC, Center for Disease Control, estimates that only about 17 percent of U.S. adults are considered to be in a state of optimal mental health. It reports depression as the most common mental illness, impacting more than 26 percent of the U.S. adult population and on track to become the second leading cause of disability worldwide by 2020.

Parents need to break the cycle if violence, conflict or mental illness is prevalent, for the sake of themselves, their children and future generations of their family. “If trauma is happening in families homes from kids youngest ages, then it tends to pass from generation to generation,” says Anna Henderson, executive director of the Westside Infant-family Network (WIN) which provides mental-health services to underserved families with young children. “It’s a whole-family issue that crosses economics, cultural and racial bounds.”

“It’s not about blaming parents for children’s mental health issues,” she says. “It’s about recognizing that our family secrets are affecting us — and then working with whole families to heal past trauma, repair and support healthy relationships, and prevent transmission of trauma to the next generation.

Arroyo says mental health checkups for families with a history of mental illness, a predisposition to substance abuse or the stress of prolonged financial difficulties are essential. Awareness and self-monitoring among at-risk individuals is the first stage of care. If the person undergoing symptoms is unable to seek help, then a loved one stepping in would be of significant importance.

We need to reverse the out-dated stigma of rejecting mental help. In this new age of information, protecting the welfare of children can help motivate parents who would otherwise shy away from seeking help. “As a parent, just knowing that my depression or alcohol dependence or family conflict has a good chance of affecting my child right now and into the future, arms me with the knowledge that if I get help, I can make my child’s future better as well,” says Henderson. “I can use the opportunity to improve our relationship and end the cycle of impulse issues that may have dated back before our grandparents.”

Arroyo says parents should learn about their extended family’s history of trauma, substance abuse or depression to understand what to look out for in themselves — and their kids. Then take steps to create a home environment that promotes good mental health. Experts from WIN suggest:

Communication: Build an open, honest relationship with your kids through conversation during dinner, car rides, or special events.

Consistency: Structure including regular mealtimes, bedtimes, and reasonable consequences for unwanted behavior helps children feel safe and secure.

Observation: Watch for behavior abnormality that could be a sign of trauma, stress or abuse. Also, be familiar with your children’s social circles.

Modeling: Avoid using derogatory language. Discuss prevention and treatment of mental illness just as you would physical ailments such as heart disease or diabetes. This makes it easier to open up and ask for professional help.

When parents notice change in their child’s behavior and suspect an issue, they can find help within their community, schools and counselors. Wellness centers and family counseling are now popping up to deal with chronic aggression, obsessive or compulsive behavior or separation anxiety.

The L.A. County Department of Mental Health also offers a 24-hour helpline (800- 854-7771) to connect families with mentalhealth services. And the department’s website, dmh.lacounty.gov, features links to mentalhealth resources, community clinics, and a glossary of mental-health terms and stories of people who have found help.

For Sunland-Tujunga individuals, I recommend enrolling in a monthly program at Hillview Mental Health Center on Van Nuys Blvd. which will double your chance of selection to a managed care facility like Day Street. Call Laura for intake and give my name, Amelia: (818) 896-1161.

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