Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Abandoned children a mental health issue

We’ve been hearing a lot about Nebraska’s safe haven law. Thirty-four children -- mostly teens -- have been abandoned in the state since mid-September, shortly after the new law went into effect.

Today, I read another piece about the situation in Karen Ball’s sobering Time Magazine story, "The Abandoned Children of Nebraska." There are some parts of the story worth repeating.

....dealing with the underlying causes of abandonment is much harder, child welfare experts say. "These parents had to be totally overwhelmed to do something like this," says Rev. Steven Boes, president of Boys Town — the original safe haven of Father Flanagan fame, which happens to be headquartered in Omaha. Once upon a time, Depression-battered parents would buy bus fare for their children and hand them a sign, "Take Me to Boys Town." Their counterparts today "are parents who have tried to navigate the system for years and this is their last resort; these are parents who ran out of patience too darn fast and gave up too early, and everything in between," says Father Boes.

Boes says one root of the abandonment problem is that there is simply not enough help for parents in crisis. In Nebraska, for instance, there are only six child psychiatrists in the entire state, he says. "It's a national problem... insurance often won't pay after six visits — so if the kid's not fixed, you're out of luck. States have a jumble of services. It's a puzzle with missing pieces."

Only six child psychiatrists in Nebraska? In a state with 445,000 residents under 18 (2006 census), that’s one child psychiatrist per 74,000 kids. That’s a lot of 50-minute appointments.

Wyoming, Nebraska’s squarish neighbor to the West, doesn’t fare much better. At last count, Wyoming had two child psychiatrists. That’s one psychiatrist per 60,770 kids. How many of these youngsters will need mental health care in the course of a year?

The National Alliance on Mental Illness web site cites that fewer than one-third of adults and one-half of children with diagnosable mental disorders get treatment in any given year (stats from HHS Mental Health: Report from the Surgeon General). Suicide is the third leading cause of death of those 10-24 years old (suicide ranks number one among that age group in Wyoming). 90 percent of those who commit suicide have a diagnosable mental disorder. More than 50 percent of kids with a mental disorder at 14 and older drop out of school.
Both of my kids have a diagnosable mental disorder. They used to see a child psychiatrist in Cheyenne, back when we had one. My son moved to Arizona. Not because AZ has more shrinks, but because he went off to college. My daughter has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and relies for assistance on our family physician and a psychiatrist who specializes in adult mental health and a great therapist.

Resources are available, but you have to seek them out. I'll address those in future posts. Meanwhile, those of us in the 177,000 square miles that comprise Wyo-Neb will have to resort to the Depression-era strategy quoted above. Take your child to the airport (very few buses anymore). Pin a sign to the tyke’s shirt that reads: "Take me to a child psychiatrist in Colorado or Kansas – anywhere but here!" Or, you can follow the example of some frantic parents, and abandon your troubled child at any Nebraska hospital.

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