Voices’ Blog

How far has children’s mental health treatment come? What’s still needed?

Posted:  -  By: Voices for VA's Kids

Campaign Coordinator Margaret Nimmo Crowe was asked by the Staunton News-Leader to write a commentary column about the changes in children’s mental health to run alongside a news article about the history of the DeJarnette buildings in Staunton. These buildings formerly housed a “state sanitorium” but now stand empty. You can also see a timeline of the changes in the DeJarnette facility and the founding of the Commonwealth Center for Children and Adolescents.

Here is Crowe’s commentary column:

Children’s Mental Health System Improves, but Unmet Needs Remain

Given the reports of the Dejarnette Center’s disturbing history, the phrases “caring and compassionate staff,” “unwavering support,” and “the staff …saved my daughter’s life!” seem like they cannot possibly describe the same place.

Actually, these are direct quotes from former patients and their parents about the care they received at the Dejarnette Center in the 1990s and more recently at its replacement for children, Commonwealth Center for Children and Adolescents.

Moving from a history of shameful treatment of people with mental illness to providing intensive, life-saving psychiatric treatment shows just how far the children’s mental health system has come. The focus has shifted from the isolation of institutionalization to the integration of community-based treatment. Advances in scientific research about children’s developing brains and effective therapies have taught mental health professionals much about treating these disorders so that these children can reach their potential.

The problem, however, is that the knowledge about treating children’s mental health disorders is not made available to all who need it. As many as 100,000 children and adolescents in Virginia struggle with severe mental health disorders, but as few as 20 percent actually receive the help they need.

The array of treatment options needed by children with serious conditions is inadequate in every community in the Commonwealth. Particularly glaring is the lack of access to child psychiatrists and community-based crisis response services that can help children avoid hospitalization.

Fortunately, the 2012 General Assembly – with the leadership of local legislators Sen. Emmett Hanger, Del. Steve Landes and Del. Dickie Bell – began to remedy this failing by allocating $3.275 million over two years for crisis response and psychiatric services for children in three regions of the state. This is an important advancement for the children’s mental health system, but it is only a start.

Virginia must commit to expanding these types of services to the entire state so that children can be treated effectively where they live. It is much less expensive to treat children with mental health conditions than to ignore them and pay for the all-too-frequent consequences of untreated mental illness: school drop-out, homelessness or incarceration.

As we continue to improve mental health treatment for children, we must publicly promote their potential for recovery. Unlike in the past, when we shunned these children, today we must recognize that they – like all children – deserve to be treated with dignity. We can send the clear message that we value their lives and their potential by adequately caring for their mental health needs.

Then, all children in the Commonwealth with mental illness could relate to this quote from young man who was treated in one of Virginia’s state hospitals as a teenager:  “During the short period I was there I was given something that I would have never thought possible: hope. The staff members were incredible in their ability to show me that I wasn’t alone and that I could get better.”


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