Thursday, October 1, 2015

What Families Can Do During a Mental Health Crisis: Making Sure Your Child Gets the Help S/he Needs

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Mental illness is more prevalent than most people realize.  According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), 1 in 5 children has mental illness.  NAMI also notes that 50% of mental health issues begin by age 14 and 75% by age 24.  Unfortunately, half of children with mental illness do not get treatment in any given year.  Further, children with mental illness have the highest dropout rate of any disability. 

Family caregivers of children with special needs may be dealing with their child’s mental health issues.  It’s better to plan ahead for a mental health crisis so parents aren’t trying to find the information they need at the same time as they are dealing with a crisis.

Mental Health Defined

Families need to remember that mental health, like physical health, is “biologically based.”  This means that there is typically a chemical imbalance.  Unfortunately, there is still stigma associated with mental health and inaccurate stereotypes.  Parents need to know that there should not be shame or blame involved.  Just as a diabetic needs insulin, children with mental illness can’t help the fact that they have mental illness or the conditions associated with this disability.  The organ affected just happens to be the brain in which symptoms show up as behavior. 

What Parents Can Do 

Prevention is key to avoiding getting to a crisis point.  Families need to mention their concerns about their child’s behavior and mental health needs to their child’s pediatrician.  Ways to get help include: 

v  Many states have a Department of Children and Families which can offer assistance. 

v  Some states have a “Children’s System of Care” which covers behavioral health.  There may also be “mobile response” available for crisis intervention which means they would go to where the child is, including home, to try and deescalate the crisis and stabilize the situation.   

v  Due to the shortage of pediatric mental health providers, states may use a model using a primary care doctor consulting remotely with a child psychiatrist.   

v  In some states, there are day programs used for transition from the hospital if the child isn’t ready to go back to their previous school.  Families who may be having difficulty dealing with the school district can contact their Parent Training and Information Center. 

v  Help their child understand their condition and learn to self-advocate.  An excellent booklet is “The Storm in My Brain” which also helps siblings understand what is happening with their sibling, which is found at

What if Families Disagree with Mental Health Professionals
It is vital to attend all family meetings discussing discharge.  Families should also be getting information on progress on an ongoing basis.  Unfortunately, research shows that the 28 day stay that was previously the norm for stabilization has decreased since 1999 down to 5 days.  If parents think that their child isn’t ready to go home, they must advocate for a longer stay.  They could emphasize if they feel like their child is “a danger to self or others.”  Families can also express their concern that their child could end up back in the emergency room, starting treatment over, or that their child could end up getting involved in behavior that leads to police involvement.  There are organizations that will help parents to advocate for their children.  Families can get help with mental health issues from the Federation of Families for Children’s Mental Health (FFCMH), or the National Alliance on Mental Illness.  These organizations also have workshops for families to help them deal with a child with mental health issues, and could address other issues such as minor consent to treatment in some states.   
Parents who get information about their child’s mental illness and treatment options will help improve outcomes for their child.
Federation of Families for Children’s Mental Health

National Alliance on Mental Illness

Parent Training & Information Centers

For Kids Only

Going to a Psychiatrist, Psychologist, or Therapist

 Why Am I So Sad?

Five Steps for Fighting Stress
The Story on Stress
For Teens
Kids Health has a series including topics like feeling sad, feelings & emotions, body image, etc. at or Spanish
Remain Hopeful,


Lauren Agoratus is a parent/advocate who works for the Statewide Parent Advocacy Network and serves as the NJ Coordinator for Family Voices (, a national network that works to “keep families at the center of children’s healthcare” at or FB  She also serves as NJ representative supporting caregivers across the lifespan for the Caregiver Action Network (formerly National Family Caregivers Association) in a volunteer capacity at or FB