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Commentary: Mental Health Of D.C. Youth Needs To Be Priority

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Judith Sandalow, Executive Director of the Children's Law Center in Washington

Health care can be the difference between life and death.  I'm not talking about a surgeon performing quadruple bypass.  I mean mental health services such as therapy, counseling, and medication. Because mental health problems can be just as life threatening as an aggressive cancer.

They almost killed one D.C. teenager named Jay. When he was 11 years old, Jay was the victim of a drive-by shooting. A bullet lodged in his spine and landed him in a wheelchair. The doctors took care of Jay's physical injury, but no one thought about the effect of the shooting on his mental health -- until he was 15 and tried to commit suicide.

Jay is not alone. The human and financial cost of not treating mental health disorders is staggering. Nationally, 67 percent of young people in the juvenile justice system have a diagnosable mental health disorder. Last year, 66 percent of children entering foster care in the District were found to have mental health needs. And last year, more than 200 children were sent to residential programs as far away as Texas because D.C. couldn't provide intensive in-home support.

Jay was lucky he finally got help. Despite suffering trauma of all kinds, from witnessing drive by shootings to being the victims of child abuse, literally thousands of the District's children never get needed mental health services, a failure documented by the District itself in study after study.

Councilmember David Catania's proposed legislation, the South Capitol Street Tragedy Memorial bill, has received a lot of media attention because it too is inspired by an extreme case: the shooting of five young people. The bill is a positive beginning. It would require more screening of at-risk children and training for teachers and day care workers to identify mental health needs early.

But screening is not enough.  Screening is for mental health what an x-ray is for physical health. The x-ray shows you that a bone is broken. But you need a doctor to set the break, a cast to hold it in place, and follow-up visits to make sure the bone is healing properly. It's the same thing in mental health. A screening shows what problems a child has, but then the child needs the right kind of treatment for that child's specific problem. Otherwise the emotional wound festers rather than heals.

The District needs to move beyond screening to create services that meet the needs of our children.   And we need to ensure that the services are of good quality and provided in a timely manner.

Tomorrow is the D.C. Council oversight hearing for the Department of Mental Health. Steve Baron, the department's director, should receive recognition for bringing to an end the 37-year class action law suit focused on adult mental health as well as for starting many important pilot programs for  children. It is time for the Mayor and the D.C. Council to fully fund these children's programs. Our community pays a high premium for a failed children's mental health system. It costs us in terms of police resources, juvenile detention, foster care and full-time special education programs for example.  A smart investment in preventive mental health services will save money and keep our children and our community safe.

Judith Sandalow is the executive director of the Children's Law Center in Washington.

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