In a January 2014 New York Times op-ed column, Nicholas Kristof invited readers to suggest topics that deserve more attention this year. He offered up the topic of mental health as a systematically neglected issue.
I am confident that few of us disagree with him. Kristof lamented the “code of silence” around the topic, noting that the media tends to cover only mental health issues that arise in the context of extreme situations, such as mass shootings, despite the weak link between mental illness and violence.
He specifically calls out our country’s failure to adequately treat children with mental health diagnoses and the extent to which racial and ethnic minorities are underserved. He attributes this lack of attention partly to the fact that mental health issues don’t boast the usual draws – neither are they “sexy” nor do they involve Democrats and Republicans “screaming at each other.”
We applaud Kristof’s choice of mental illness as a neglected topic worthy of placement on the public agenda. Our experience with Help Me Grow, initially in Hartford and Connecticut and now across more than 20 states, suggests a strategic reframing of the mental health issue that could garner broader support.
Help Me Grow has been well-received in states of all shapes and colors. Early detection of vulnerable young children at risk for developmental and behavioral problems, and their linkage to community-based services, is simply not a political issue. Having provided technical support to states both “red” and “blue,” we have seen firsthand that addressing the behavioral needs of children is a non-partisan cause.
Our experience with Help Me Grow dissemination also suggests the value of reframing the discussion beyond the essential need for proper treatment. We believe that the answer lies, in part, in getting “upstream” of these issues by focusing on early detection of young children for whom behavioral concerns have not yet evolved into full-blown mental health diagnoses. Help Me Grow demonstrates that 85% of such children are effectively linked to community-based programs and services, including family resource centers, parenting programs, and quality child care services, when they become connected to a Help Me Grow system.
Prevention initiatives that focus on the early detection of parental concerns for their children’s emotional well-being are even less “sexy” than mental health problems. Yet the exclusive spotlight on the most harrowing and extreme of mental health situations isn’t enough. It won’t be as productive as a thoughtful approach to prevention opportunities afforded by the early detection of such concerns. It won’t fully support the healthy development of our many children in need. Substance must trump sexy now.