Compartmentalization of mental health within the medical profession and stigma related to mental illness has meant that definitions and diagnosis are often difficult to nail down. Not too long ago, mental health was thought to be inapplicable to adolescents because since they were still developing physically, they could not suffer from mental illnesses. Now we know that many young people, including teenagers and even grade school students have mental health needs.
But what about children as young as 3 or 4?
Yesterday’s New York Times Magazine asks an important question: Can Preschoolers Be Depressed?
To be sure, this is a controversial subject. From where we stand today, there are many who cannot accept that there are very young children who have very real mental health needs. As the article points out, there is a difference between the sadness a child experiences when they drop their ice cream cone and deep, lasting depression that becomes debilitating.
There is a strong case to be made for early diagnosis and treatment. We are still somewhat in the early phases of this, but clinicians have found that children as young as 4 years old appear to respond to treatment better than older children – perhaps due to similar brain development factors that allow younger children to better learn new languages.
Here in Massachusetts, we have experienced first hand the positive impact of identifying and treating mental health needs at an early age. Worcester’s Together For Kids Coalition worked in early education settings, providing mental health counselors to work with children displaying behavioral health issues. They found that not only did expulsions from preschools go down, but special education costs the following year in kindergartens across Worcester fell.
The earlier we find children with mental health needs, the better the outcome for everyone – including taxpayers.
The time is NOW to reform the children’s mental health system so all young people can get the help they need.