Even 6 months after the tragedy at Shady Hook Elementary School, we’ve all been asking what may have caused the horrific shooting. We may or may not agree that the ready availability of assault weapons and the playing of violent video games may have contributed to the rampage, but we can surely agree that failures in the mental health system also played a significant role. We don’t know if his mother struggled to obtain mental health services for her son, although we know that she had home-schooled him for a time. What we do know, however, is that for many families, providing mental health services for their desperately ill children is an extraordinary challenge. And many, many children, as well as adults, are falling through the cracks. I see the struggle for mental health services occur on a daily basis.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), 4 million children and adolescents in this country suffer from a serious mental disorder that causes significant functional impairments at home, at school, or with peers. Additionally, 21% of children between ages 9 and 17 have been diagnosed with a mental or addictive disorder that causes at least minimal impairment. Despite this high prevalence rate, NAMI reports that in any given year, only 20% of children with a mental disorder are identified and treated. That’s a lot of kids to not receive treatment, and the consequences can be tragic. Suicide is now the third leading cause of death among youth aged 15 to 24. Of those children who commit suicide, over 90% have been diagnosed with a mental disorder. Additionally, 50% of teens with a mental disorder will drop out of school. Many of these youth will wind up in the criminal justice system. The National Institute of Mental Health found that 65% of boys and 75% of girls in juvenile detention have at least one mental disorder.