From the July 2018 issue

Prioritizing Mental Health Keeps Kids Safe and Alive

When kids' mental health needs aren't met, they may turn to drugs to cope. This can lead to run-ins with police and even suicide. Oakland Community Health Network explains why – and how you can help.

Kids have a lot going on in their lives, and sometimes it can be too much for their still-developing brains to handle. Simple, everyday tasks like schoolwork, after-school commitments, and working on the side – and more complicated issues like family drama, peer pressure, getting into college and even the environment they’re living in – can put undue burden on kids. These pressures quickly add stress and affect their mental health, even if the issue isn’t something that they can control.

According to experts, that stress on their mental health can push kids to take controlled substances.

“People with mental health needs may self-medicate because they don’t understand what is going on with themselves (or in their lives),” says LaKeisha Blackwell, juvenile jail diversion coordinator with Oakland Community Health Network.

Sometimes, a child may not even be aware there’s a mental health concern – and that this concern could even be grief or anger.

“The misuse of substance can be caused by kids trying to cope or fit in,” Blackwell says. “They’re experimenting with drugs and don’t realize the drug has a hold on them, because they thought that they had control.That shift is very quick.”

Regardless of their reasoning, kids can find themselves in trouble with the law if they choose to use, explains Siiri Sikora, a juvenile justice coordinator and community liaison for OCHN.

“They can be put on probation, or placed at a treatment facility like Crossroads for Youth.” Crossroads is located in Oxford, and offers treatment programs for kids,” or even a private placement,” she says. “If they are already on probation and are violating again, they can be placed on more intensive probation.”

An underlying mental illness that goes untreated can contribute to suicidal thoughts as well.

“I see young people getting so caught up in their behavior and feelings of hopelessness and helplessness,” Blackwell says. “It’s difficult to determine if or when these feelings may turn to thoughts of suicide.”

Luckily, parents can help kids from going down this dark and dangerous path by talking with them about substance use and getting them help for their illness or to develop improved coping skills

“It’s about being proactive,” Sikora says. “Parents should reach out to their kids to understand why they are acting out or smoking. Pay attention to their child (and) talk about it. If the child doesn’t want to talk to their parents, then get a third party to help them open up a bit more.”

And while schools and police play a part by using early screening tools to catch kids who appear more prone to this path – and by implementing advocates, like Sikora, in the court system – the community also has a pivotal role in curbing this issue.

“Our communities need to be more informed about the dangers of substance use and how we must work together to keep kids safe.” Blackwell says.”(Know) where kids can go to get drugs and take an effort in protecting our children. Collaborate and give that additional support, because it does take a village to raise a kid.”

For more information on the Oakland Community Health Network, visit occmha.org.

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