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We can't let emotional wounds go untreated.

Byline: GUEST VIEWPOINT By Amy Neilson and Lucy Zammarelli For The Register-Guard

Lisa is a 15-year-old girl with no stable home who lives mostly on the streets of Eugene and stays with friends or acquaintances when the weather is bad. Lisa - not her real name - was kicked out of her mother's house last year after her mom discovered marijuana in her room.

Lisa's mom told her it was the "last straw" after Lisa's frequent "fits." Lisa's mom had recently received a call from Lisa's school because she had been skipping frequently. Her mom was worried about Lisa's younger siblings, who seemed to be afraid of Lisa and her unpredictable moods.

Since the age of 12, Lisa has been struggling with anxiety. When she was 11, she was sexually abused by her mother's boyfriend. Although the offender was apprehended, Lisa has discovered that her fear has not disappeared so easily. She receives reminders of the trauma often: When she is in enclosed spaces, when she's around older men, or when she's faced with confrontations, her emotions seem to flood her. Hanging out with peers downtown makes Lisa feel calm, especially because they can usually provide a steady supply of substances to help her forget the way she feels.

Lisa is typical of many teenagers in Lane County. When caregivers and others fail to see the symptoms of stress - such as anger, depression, anxiety, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which may follow a fearful event - children often exhibit emotional and behavioral mood swings.

Clinically, this is called "dysregulation," a neat word for a complex condition. Family members and school personnel might see a behavior problem, and childhood friends might drift away in confusion. Some adolescents begin drinking or using substances as a form of self-medication for the uncomfortable way they feel.

Many of the teenagers who are incarcerated, or vandalize downtown property, or are kicked out of school are survivors of trauma and have not received the mental health services they need. They have slipped through the cracks, and are unable to explain what is wrong or fix what hurts. Their frustration is an echo of our adult frustrations, because adverse childhood experiences figure prominently in adult mental health diagnoses.

How can we as a community fill the gap for these children? How can we ensure that their anxiety, depression and other symptoms are being addressed, that their families and friends know how to talk with them, that they have healthy coping skills instead of turning to substance use?

We can start by raising awareness of children's mental health issues, and supporting the resources and programs that are available for young people with mental health needs. The situation in our county is grim. Programs for young people have already been cut due to a shrinking budget for human services in Lane County. More cuts are coming.

Today is the perfect day for Lane County residents to reflect on mental health services for children and youth. Today is National Children's Mental Health Awareness Day, an initiative launched by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (www.samhsa.gov). Today presents an opportunity to gain understanding of vital mental health issues that many children and youth live with daily.

Willamette Family Inc. is one of Lane County's social service agencies that can provide education and interventions for youth and families in need of services in response to trauma. Willamette Family (www.wfts.org) has an adolescent mental health and substance use treatment program, and is participating in National Children's Mental Health Awareness Day.

Lane County residents can get involved by seeking information on children's mental health issues, and by creating awareness of the mental health needs of youth that may be reflected in dysregulated behavior. The Lane County Board of Commissioners can prioritize children's mental health initiatives and youth mental health programs. Families can remember that frightening experiences can have lasting effects. And most importantly, trauma and mental health issues can be treated, and lives can be improved.

Lisa and her peers need us to understand their situations. They need to know that they can receive support, treatment, and help with emotional and behavioral problems. They need caregivers, teachers, and counselors who understand trauma symptoms and know where to refer them for help. The youth of Lane County need a community that will promote their development and healing, and residents who will advocate for their well-being.

Life may not be perfect for our children, but we can help them when they need it, if we know what to look for. Join us in recognizing National Children's Mental Health Awareness Day, and taking a new view of our young people and our ability to help them!

Amy Neilson is program coordinator for the Integrated Treatment Services program for girls - ITS-Girls - at Willamette Family Inc. The ITS-Girls program provides substance abuse and mental health treatment for adolescent girls. Lucy Zammarelli is director of the program and teaches at the University of Oregon's Substance Abuse Prevention Program.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Local Opinion
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:May 8, 2008
Words:832
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