Kids’ mental health programs still lag in Ga.

Print Friendly and PDF By: Andy Miller Published: Nov 2, 2011

It has been acclaimed as a national model for other states.

Last year’s settlement agreement between Georgia and federal officials over improving the care of people with mental illnesses and developmental disabilities has won widespread praise from consumer advocacy groups, both here and nationally.

But the pact with the U.S. Justice Department has one major gap: It doesn’t address children’s services.

Georgia children with mental illness are still stuck in government and educational systems that are not coordinated and often don’t meet the young patients’ needs, consumer advocacy groups say.

The Carter Center Mental Health Program, which was an active player in the push for the Justice Department pact, recently released a draft report on mental health care in Georgia that highlighted problems in children’s services in the state.

Starting Thursday in Cartersville, children’s mental health care in Georgia will be discussed, along with services for adults, in the first in a series of town hall meetings sponsored by the Carter Center program, along with state officials.

And last week, the Rosalynn Carter Symposium on Mental Health Policy focused on building services for children exposed to domestic violence and those in the welfare and juvenile justice systems.

Many children are exposed to trauma of various types, the former first lady told an audience at the Carter Center in Atlanta. “For too many children, home is not a safe haven,’’ she said. “Surely we can do better by these children and their families.’’

Childhood trauma can have a variety of causes: domestic violence, physical abuse, emotional abuse, violence in the school or community, poverty, impaired caregivers.

The trauma can lead to mental health problems. Federal statistics have shown that one in five children have diagnosable mental disorders, and that one in 10 youths have mental health problems severe enough to impair how they function at home, at school, or in the community.

The Carter Center report recommends, among other things, more mental health services being available at schools; mobile crisis teams to help families; and better transition planning for children in foster care, juvenile justice and special education as they become adults.

Anita Zervigon-Hakes, a consultant who contributed to the Carter Center report, said in an interview that providing good support services at schools can make a big difference in treating mental health problems.

The report commends school programs in Cobb and Murray counties for having onsite behavioral health services and positive support systems.

Children with mental illness ‘‘are commonly misunderstood as behavior problems,’’ Zervigon-Hakes said. “The earlier the kids get into care, [the better] we can really do something about it.’’

“Georgia is a work in progress,’’ Zervigon-Hakes said. “We’re really not doing well,’’ she said. “We’re incarcerating too many kids.’’

Some programs in Georgia work well but have a limited scope, said Sue Smith, executive director of the Georgia Parent Support Network, which provides support, education and advocacy for children and youths with mental illness and their families.

“Some schools have wonderful programs,’’ Smith said. “Some schools have nothing.’’

The state, she said, should improve its coordination among the several agencies dealing with children with mental illness: the departments of Community Health, Juvenile Justice, Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities, and Education, and the Division of Family and Children’s Services.

And there are funding problems, Smith said. Some community service boards and other providers can no longer serve children because they lose money on this care, she said.

Adult services such as crisis teams, required in the Justice Department accord, would also be good for children and their families, she said.

The Justice pact has diverted needed attention from kids, Smith said. “I wouldn’t wish anything less for adults,’’ Smith said, ‘‘but it has taken almost all the focus off children.’’

Nevertheless, Smith said the state government has hired some good leaders on mental health services. And she feels optimistic about the town hall meetings, saying they can bring a message that’s unfamiliar to many Georgians.

“There’s still tons of stigma” for people with mental health problems, Smith said. “I think the conversation will enlighten people.’’

 

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