Children’s mental health: Always more complicated

So what happens when kids try to escape all this? Dr. Gray recalled a study that showed how much two sisters in an abusive home were helped because they often went to another home for hours, and that home became their “surrogate family.” But if a troubled child is not fortunate enough to have something like that, they often will turn to negative solutions for comfort, such as joining a gang or self-cutting.

Dr. Gray says that self-cutting, where an adolescent might take a razor blade and cut their arms or legs, is often a matter of a troubled youth simply wanting to control their own life. “They decide they prefer physical over emotional pain, and that THEY will decide how much pain they have. And the way the body reacts to the cutting, the kids often tell us what they are really seeking is the adrenalin rush that comes from it.”

What can be done to slow down these problems? Both Zambrano and Dr. Gray say it comes down to, like so many other health issues: funding, available personnel, education, and good parenting.

“You have a lot of high schools,” Zambrano explained, “where they are sharing a social worker with another high school, or maybe you have one social worker available for every 300 kids. It’s ridiculous how the help is spread so thin. Kids are the future, and it’s cheaper to heal a child than incarcerate an adult.”

One area where progress has been seen is with the WCHD’s involvement with the YESS program (Youth Empowerment Strategies for Success) at the Joliet Township High School District.

Under the program, a counselor from the Health Department office is stationed full-time at both Joliet Central and Joliet West High Schools. Dr. Gray says that not only can this “nip a problem in the bud” before it grows, it also helps families.

Statistics released by the Joliet Township High School District after a decade of the Y.E.S.S. program did indeed show that many problems were likely stopped before they got worse. For example, district on-campus fighting incidents in 2005 totaled 336, but were down to 104 a decade later. In addition, assaults had dropped from 338 to 248, and expulsions had fallen from 110 to 36.

“Without a program like this,” Dr Gray explained, “the parent has to take time off work to take the student for treatment. Then, the student misses part of the school day. Our counselors see the students during elective or study hall periods; and not during Math, Science, English, or Social Studies classes. Numbers show nothing but positives from this.”

But as we move into the future, the job constantly gets harder, especially with the often “without a conscience” world of social media. “There is now an app,” said Zambrano, “which completely erases what you post on social media about a minute after you post it. So someone could post something hateful about a person, have many people see it, but then be able to say, ‘How can you prove that I did this?’”