VCU Expert in Childhood Mental Illness Says There Are 15 Million Who Have Problems
A nationally-recognized expert in childhood mental illness says there are 15 million children in this country who suffer from mental problems, and most will not get any professional help for it. Charles Fishburne talked with Dr. Bela Sood who is professor and chair of the Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry in the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine.
Dr. Sood says there is a crisis in this country detecting and treating childhood mental illness. Not enough trained workers, not enough money and too much stigma attached.
Sood: Most people are willing to take a child who has physical illness to a practitioner, but it is very tough for them to acknowledge if there are behavior problems because in some ways, it's as if mental illness is something that you, you know, asked for or you are responsible for, unlike other illnesses, so that stigma is what prevents parents from really identifying issues.
She says here's some of the things to look for.
Sood: Clearly, I think sometimes comparing siblings and seeing how the child looks different from other siblings, or if the teachers within the school setting are pointing out difficulties, that would be a first red flag kind of a thing. If parents are noticing other behaviors which really put the child in harm's way, say for example, too much of aggression, too much of preoccupation with violence, or where they self-harm, things like suicidal statements being made, or depression, or the child just can't take joy in normal things.
The signals may be hard for parents to read, but she says there is something even more reliable.
Sood: I think all parents should follow their intuition, because parents' intuition is something which is extremely strong, and I think that if we can get over the hump of when your intuition says 'I need help,' can you then access a provider, especially a pediatrician. Pediatricians are excellent first-line defenses when they can actually help the parent understand whether this is normal behavior or abnormal behavior, and help direct the parents to a specialist if the need be. Going to a pediatrician usually doesn't carry any stigma, so that should be the first step.
Dr. Sood says much has changed in the way mental illness is regarded and treated in the last generation.
Sood: Absolutely. I think I belong to the previous generation; I'm now 25 years in the practice of child psychiatry and I do notice great strides being made. We're already at a cutting edge of looking at a neurobiology of mental illness, that it is indeed sort of stems from genetics as well as how the brain is wired and that these are not things that people will upon themselves; they're just there, like any other physical illness.
And I understand you are a proponent of using medication when appropriate?
Sood: Absolutely, and I think that medications have a place; however, nothing can replace the idea of doing a thorough assessment, where you have looked at all aspects and given patients the choices, you know, the other choices of non-medication-based interventions. In fact, we just had a kid in our clinic right now, where the parents did not want the kid to be on medication and we suggested other things, and they were pretty happy with it. And the concept is that if those things don't work, come back and sometimes medications have to be the first choice because the problems are so intense.
And while she says there is clearly a crisis at hand, with only one in five children getting the help she says they need, there is a silver lining.
Sood: Eighty percent of the kids that we see end up having a very positive outcome.
Dr. Bela Sood is professor and chair of the Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry in the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine.
I’m Charles Fishburne, WCVE News.