Facing the mental-health monster

Without hesitation, you’d take your child to the emergency room for a broken arm, the dentist for a cavity, the pediatrician for a sore throat.

But what do you do when your child suffers the death of a loved one, bullying at school or low self-esteem? What happens when you learn that your child is hurting other kids at day care, refusing to eat, engaging in self-harm or acting out in school? 

When it comes to emotional wellbeing, we don’t always know how to “fix it.” 

Here’s the good news: You don’t have to know how to fix everything. You only need to know how to ask for help.

And, fortunately for local families, Minnesota boasts a wealth of resources for kids in need of mental health-care expertise. 

In fact, multiple children’s mental health-care providers in the Twin Cities have been investing millions in expansions to meet the growing needs of families with kids suffering from anxiety, depression, childhood trauma, bipolar disorder, eating disorders and other emotional and behavioral disorders. 

Moving beyond stigma 

Of course, even with a wide variety of options available, seeking treatment can be difficult for parents. 

Our biggest wish for our children is for them to sail through life without such complicated challenges. 

To admit that a child might need help is to open the heart and mind to an onslaught of frightening “what ifs.” 

Fortunately, the stigma surrounding talking about — and treating — mental-health problems seems to be decreasing as parents have become more comfortable advocating not just for the physical health of their kids, but for their mental wellbeing as well.

That’s part of why so many providers have been expanding their services, said Jen Holper, a licensed social worker and marketing director at PrairieCare, a Twin Cities mental health-care provider. 

“Our culture has become more accepting of disorders, therefore people are more likely to seek help — increasing the number who are diagnosed,” Holper said. 

Thanks to that awareness, more parents are taking action, said Stephanie Combey, senior director of children’s mental-health services at St. David’s Center for Child & Family Development in Minnetonka.

“I think that parents who may have struggled with their own mental-health issues, such as ADHD, in their youth, don’t want to see their own children struggle when they start to see the symptoms emerging.” 

Expanding in the Twin Cities 

PrairieCare has seen dramatic growth — 35 percent each year by patient visits — during the past five years. It now boasts six, going on seven, locations in the metro area, including a new 75,000-square-foot child and adolescent psychiatric hospital in Brooklyn Park (including a large playroom, pictured above).

During the past seven years, the Minneapolis-based nonprofit Washburn Center for Children — a children’s mental-health center — has seen the number of children it serves double to more than 2,700 per year. 

After completing a $24.5 million capital campaign in December 2014, Washburn Center moved from its longtime Nicollet Avenue location to a newly built children’s mental-health facility west of downtown Minneapolis, doubling the size of its home base to 55,000 square feet.

St. David’s Center is in the final stages of a $13.7 million facility expansion as well (including a new playground for all its programs, pictured below). 

Combey said the center has seen significant growth in early childhood mental-health services, including early intervention to support socio-emotional readiness for kids entering kindergarten.

“Another goal for our early childhood mental-health services is to prevent de-missions of children from their early childhood settings that result from behaviors that are too challenging to manage in a preschool setting,” Combey said.  

What’s ‘normal’?

One out of five kids will experience a mental-health challenge during childhood, said Dr. Rachael Krahn, associate clinical director at the Washburn Center for Children.

“But knowing when to seek help can be challenging for caregivers,” Krahn said. “The frequency and severity of a child’s symptoms are important factors in determining whether professional help is needed,” 

Is this a phase of frequent tantrums or have the outbursts turned into constant, chaotic periods of rage? Do your child’s moods come and go? Or have burdening symptoms been present for quite some time?

It’s important to remember that kids go through tough times, learn through experimentation, have big emotions and can’t always find the words to communicate feelings.

“Some periods of development are typically more challenging for families, such as the terrible twos and adolescence, though this might not be the case for all parents,” Krahn said. “For some caregivers, infancy feels easy, while others find it difficult.”

Common signs that your child may need to meet with someone include difficulty making and keeping friends, loss of interest in social activities, significant changes in behavior at home, concerns about self harm such as cutting, difficulty communicating feelings and hopeless or suicidal comments, said Alyssa Wright, a licensed marriage and family therapist at The Family Development Center in St. Paul.

Anxiety problems are becoming increasingly common among children, Krahn said.

“Anxiety is often an underlying theme/diagnosis in many of the children we serve,” Krahn said. “We’ve continued to see how anxiety disorders significantly impact a child’s healthy development.” 

Discovering invisible problems

Jennifer Schmidt, a Richfield mother of two, learned the value of an in-depth mental-health assessment when it came to her daughter, Sophia.

Sophia was having problems at daycare. The provider recommended she be screened for behavioral issues and dismissed her permanently from the daycare. 

Schmidt had her daughter screened through the local school district, but the evaluator found nothing unusual in Sophia’s assessment. 

Some of her daughter’s “undesirable” behaviors included isolation from the group, speech delays and not following directions. 

Schmidt later enrolled Sophia in a preschool. Again the teacher recommended an evaluation. But this time the teacher specified that Sophia should be screened at the Washburn Center for Children.

That made a difference. 

“It was way different at Washburn,” Schmidt said. “With no disrespect to the public school district screenings, this was more than just checking off a long list of boxes. The first thing the specialist recommended was getting Sophia’s tonsils and adenoids checked.” 

That turned out to be an important suggestion. 

“Sophia had so much fluid in her ears,” Schmidt said. “It was like she had been hearing from underwater.”

For Sophia, a physical limitation was causing behavioral issues. 

This can often be the case.

Dyslexia and other visual issues can also bring about a teacher’s recommendation to see a behavioral specialist — as can certain food sensitivities, if the reaction is severe enough.

What about meds?

Some parents may hesitate to take a child in for treatment because they have mixed or negative feelings about the use of psychotropic medicines. 

Laura, a St. Paul mother of four, has seen two of her daughters through the use of mental-health medications. 

She was particularly concerned about her youngest daughter, who was only 15 when she started taking anti-depressants. 

“We had heard that meds were especially hard on teenagers, who are still growing and developing,” Laura said. “We heard it made them more prone to suicidal thoughts. It was an option none of us wanted, but when my daughter actually asked if she could try medicine, I listened.”

Freaked out at the thought of putting your kid on psychotropic medications? 

Remember that you’re in control of this situation. 

If psychotropic prescriptions are recommended and you would rather try another route first, seek a second opinion. Also take comfort in this: Using medication isn’t the first step for most professionals. 

In the case of children and teens, most try other methods of treatment first and — when they do prescribe medication — it’s sometimes for a short duration and almost always combined with other forms of therapy.

Letting go of stigma

If you’re feeling doubt and guilt, which can often come along with the realization that your child needs mental-wellness help, try to let it go.

Life is hard. And therapy can help. And you’re not to blame for your child’s special needs. 

Early intervention among younger kids can be extremely beneficial because mental-health disorders sometimes coincide with otherwise undiscovered developmental or behavioral issues. Addressing these issues sooner rather than later often results in the best benefit.

Combey, with St. David’s, said research clearly indicates that mental-health issues can start developing in early childhood and even infancy, and that demands early intervention.

“For example, anxiety in children often leads to avoidance of school, social situations, peers, etc. Providing the child and his parents with an understanding of anxiety, methods to cope with those thoughts and feelings, and opportunities to be successful in stressful situations can decrease the impact of the child’s anxiety on both the child and his parents,” Combey said.

Getting help — and taking proactive steps to find solutions and support for your child’s needs — can give your family an edge.

And what about your own mental health? Remember, tending to your emotional needs can actually produce a trickle-down effect. So lose the shame and embrace emotional health — for the whole family.

Jen Wittes is a mother of two and a freelance writer who lives in St. Paul. Learn more about her work at jenwittes.com.