United Way’s Women United hosted their third annual “Conversations That Matter” event at Grace United Methodist Church on Tuesday. Their first event in 2017 focused on human trafficking in the area and last year’s topic was opioid addiction. This year’s subject was just as imperative with a focus on childhood and adolescent mental health with a panel consisting of clinical social worker from Lakeland Mental Health Colleen Kennedy and regional director of behavioral health services at Lutheran Social Service (LSS) of Minnesota, Jody Shaskey-Setright, moderated by Fergus Falls School District Superintendent Jeff Drake.
Drake opened the conversation by setting the stage with Fergus Falls’ results from last spring’s state student survey, which is available online at the Minnesota Department of Education website. The survey is conducted every three years in all Minnesota public schools and goes out to students in fifth, eighth, ninth and 11th grade. Drake read some questions from the survey, and gave the results for the student population in Fergus Falls: “‘Have any of your parents or guardians ever been in jail or prison?’ Ninth graders, ‘yes,’ about 1 in 3 students. ‘How much do you feel adults in your community care about you?’ ‘Not at all or a little,’ 25% to 40% of students in eighth, ninth and 11th grades,” he said. “‘Have you ever seriously considered attempting suicide?’ And the response was, ‘Yes, more than a year ago,’ about 1 in 5 female students. Or, if you’re talking about ALC or Alternative Learning Center students, about 50%.”
The survey results painted a picture that mental health is a serious concern among students in Fergus Falls. While the survey focuses on students in fifth grade and above, mental health issues can begin to manifest at any age, evident in young children failing to meet developmental milestones and acting out or having behavioral issues at home or in the classroom.
The conversation focused primarily on mental-health problems as a result of adverse childhood experiences like abuse (physical, emotional and sexual), emotional or physical neglect or household dysfunctions like parental substance abuse, divorce, parental mental illness, domestic abuse or an incarcerated family member. When a young child isn’t meeting developmental milestones or begins behaving abnormally (differentiating from age-appropriate behaviors that just might not be to a parent’s liking, like tantrums), or an older child’s personality, interests or social group change or their grades begin to drop, an adult shouldn’t jump to criticism. Instead, they should try to see if any of those adverse childhood experiences are present and look for resources that might be able to help the child cope positively with any issues they’re facing.
However, whether the child is suffering from mental illness or distress as a result of outside forces, or if it’s a genetic or hereditary illness or a result of prenatal substance abuse, Kennedy and Shaskey-Setright explained that signs or symptoms are similar and there are resources available to help those kids. “I think that referring families to their primary care, we always want families to have a ‘health home,’ have a doctor that they feel safe and they can talk to about concerns that may be happening in their family,” says Shaskey-Setright. If you’re concerned about a child, I understand that you can go to the Help Me Grow website and make a referral, and my understanding is anybody can do that, and the referral will then be followed up. I think the school district, when I’m doing assessments on little kids, I’m sometimes referring them for special education assessments, so working collaboratively with other agencies. I always say resources, look at who the grantees are in your county for the early childhood mental health grant. LSS or Solutions (Behavioral Healthcare Professionals) or the Village (Family Service Center), because they’ve made a commitment that they are to, when they receive a referral, they are to accept that referral and that family would receive services.”
Kennedy also reinforced that community and a sense of belonging are extremely valuable in giving kids resiliency and help them face problems they’re dealing with, as well as having a nurturing and competent adult, what Kennedy called a “buffering caregiver,” who can be any adult in a child’s life that shows them love and care. “When you are loving on, nurturing kids in your community, kids in your household, grandchildren, you’re helping protect them from stress, so please keep doing that,” she says.
Finally, Jason Bergstrand and Natalie Knutson of the Thrive Initiative closed the conversation with an introduction to mental health resiliency activities that help promote health and happiness which participants could do themselves, and could teach or encourage youths in their lives to try. These include random acts of kindness, spending every night for two weeks every six months writing three positive things they experienced or are grateful for, and writing a letter of gratitude to someone in their life or in their past.
Among audience members who participated in this event included representatives from Otter Tail County Public Health and Human Services, Noon Kiwanis, a foster grandparent program, as well as parents and grandparents interested in learning more about how they can support their children.
“Women United is an affinity group of United Way and their mission is to improve the lives of all children in Otter Tail and Wadena counties,” said Eleanor Stadum in her welcoming comments. While Women United focuses much of their efforts on childhood literacy, their Conversations That Matter series show that there’s a lot at stake when it comes to helping the young people in area communities, and the first step in that endeavor is education.