Assisting Vulnerable Children on World Mental Health Day 2017

In recognition of World Mental Health Day, we want to address the issue of protecting and supporting the emotional and psycho-social well-being of all children. Recently, there have been numerous incidents and situations placing vulnerable children in untenable situations that are a direct threat to their emotional and mental health. While children are remarkably resilient, they are not immune to emotional upheaval, and failing to address issues caused by this upheaval will only contribute to further generations of unresolved trauma and pain. When children’s psycho-social needs are not addressed in the immediate aftermath of a traumatic event or when there are untreated on-going stressors in the child’s life, we run the risk of the child never fully recovering. The mental health needs of children around the world deserve our attention and willingness to adapt services and treatment models within an ever-changing social and political environment.

Unaccompanied Minors: While the number of children arriving as unaccompanied minors in the United States has decreased, little efforts have been made to provide key services to support the emotional well-being of those who are here. A narrow focus on the legal needs of these children overshadows the lack of comprehensive psycho-social services to address post-traumatic stress resulting from the arduous journey to the United States, witnessing violence in their homes and communities, separation from supportive family members, and the complicated process of family reunification once in the United States. Legal counsel can review children’s cases to apply for adjustments to immigration status, a process that requires the child to prove abuse, neglect, or abandonment. This frequently means asking young children to recount their traumas multiple times to court officials. It is not enough to secure a visa for children who have experienced violence in their home country, been exposed to violence and trauma during migration, or whose families are too fearful, unable, or unwilling to care for them when they arrive in the United States. Once we acknowledge the trauma these young victims have experienced, we must be held accountable to assist their access to free psychological and social work services.

Children whose parent(s) face deportation: Under the current administration, there is no humane deportation policy in place to protect mixed status families from prolonged, painful separation. The stress on undocumented parents and their children is enormous. These children face being separated from their parent(s), falling into poverty, social isolation, and potential placement in a non-relative foster home or institution. The cruelty of indiscriminate detention and deportation of parents means that their children live in constant fear. Fear of deportation also poses a risk within the home, as parents fearful of detection are at risk of seeking fewer services for themselves, including accessing medical care or mental health support. Children born, raised, and educated in the United States with full citizenship status can be faced with immense guilt around their own privileges and decisions to stay in the United States while their parents and families are deported. These stressors need to be recognized and addressed. There must be far more resources and attention provided to these families to decrease the stress surrounding potential or realized deportations.

Children who have experienced a large scale natural disaster: Millions of children around the world have experienced emotionally devastating natural and man-made disasters in the past years. Whether it is children in Puerto Rico or other Caribbean Islands, witnessing the massive destruction of their own homes and often, their entire islands, is devastating. Additionally, millions of children are still being exposed to war and genocide in Syria, Cambodia, and other conflict-ridden areas of the World. These children suffer from extreme emotional distress. Most importantly, most of these children will not see a quick end to the chaos and upheaval in their lives. They may be without safe housing, clean water, access to healthcare and/or education for many months or years. While we must take care of their most basic needs, we must also find ways to address their on-going psycho-social needs. We need mental health and social service professionals on the ground working with these children and their families so that they can find safe and appropriate ways to express their grief, anxiety, confusion, and insecurity.

According to the American Psychiatric Association, mental health is an essential part of children’s overall health. A child’s emotional state has a complex interactive relationship with their physical health and their ability to succeed in school and in society. It is our responsibility to provide every resource a child needs to grow up to be a happy, active member of their community.