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Dealing with youth mental illness

Goodman Beck Publishing

More education on mental illness in youth is needed throughout American society. That’s the conclusion of two guests this week on “Take Care.” Michael Fitzpatrick, the executive director of NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) and Karen Winters Schwartz, who has two children who dealt with mental health issues, both agree education is key to helping young people and their families cope with mental illness. Winters Schwartz wrote a book "Where Are the Cocoa Puffs?: A Family's Journey Through Bipolar Disorder," a fictionalized account based on her experience with one of her children; she also is a board member of NAMI.

Click 'Read More' to hear our interview with Michael Fitzpatrick and Karen Winters Schwartz.

When many children or teenagers show the first signs of mental illness, figuring out what is going on can be very hard for their parents.

“It’s a very difficult process, because how do you separate regular teenage angst from early stages of a mental illness? It’s almost impossible. And for a parent who comes at it totally unprepared, without any resources, without any help from the mental health community, the health community, or their family and friends, it’s very, very difficult,” said Winters Schwartz.

Often what turns out to be the first signs of a mental health issue can be mistaken for just a developmental stage the child is going through, or family tension.

“Teenagers are, by right, a little nuts, I mean, they are. And that doesn’t mean they have mental illness. They all are going through huge hormonal and brain changes at that time. But there is a line,” said Winters Schwartz.

Any parent who suspects their child or teen may be dealing with something more than usual teenage drama, should start with an appointment with the pediatrician, says Michael Fitzpatrick, to rule out any other conditions. But, both Fitzpatrick and Winters Schwartz agree that not all family doctors have expert training in child psychiatry.

Winters Schwartz’s daughter, in fact, at first was given the wrong diagnosis by the family doctor. That meant a prescription for medication that wasn’t needed, and a delay in the correct diagnosis.

In Winters Schwartz’s situation, she received good help from the schools, but that’s not always the case. And, Fitzpatrick adds that many families will often turn to clergy first before going to a doctor. Not all educators or clergy are well-trained in youth mental illness issues.

“We need better education. We need a clear cut referral system between school counselors, family practitioners, psychologists and psychiatrists. We need that collaboration,” said Winters Schwartz. “It has to be streamlined and parents don’t have the resources to do it on their own.”

So Fitzpatrick says it’s important that all different kinds of professionals who work with children and teens be educated. Early intervention and engagement are also key.

“What we hear too often, is that it takes five, 10 years for families to get an accurate diagnosis,” said Fitzpatrick.

Cost and access can both be road blocks for some families to get help, says Fitzpatrick. He says there are enough child psychiatrists, especially in some areas, so there can be a wait for an appointment. Some insurance plans don’t cover this kind of treatment, and it can be even harder to find a child psychiatrist that accepts Medicaid.

Fitzpatrick says the mental health community is very hopeful that the combination of the 2008 Mental Health Parity Act and the Affordable Care Act will eventually mean more access and coverage for families dealing with mental health.

And that could mean some relief for millions of families in America. Because according to Karen Winters Schwartz, 25 percent of Americans have dealt with some sort of mental health issue, which means 25 percent of families have as well.

For more information on youth mental illness, visit the NAMI website, nami.org and nami.org/caac or the website of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, aacap.org