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Kids can have mental health problems too

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With the stigma that many times follows the term "mental health" around, it's difficult to get people to understand it's not taboo and it's OK to ask for help. That's the purpose of May 3, Mental Health Awareness Day.

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And that includes kids.

"Minnesota is the first state to commit resources to mental health for that age group," Sarah Estrem said of 0-5 year olds. She works mainly with children age 0-6 years at Solutions in Detroit Lakes.

Previously, public officials have been hesitant to dedicate funds for children that age because they are so young. But, they have also learned that the quicker the issue can be diagnosed, the quicker the child can receive the proper treatment.

It may be a tough issue to discuss, a tough issue to live with and a tough issue to view as a society, but those in the mental health field are dedicated to each patient and their success.

Amber Nelson, children's mental health coordinator at Becker County Human Services, said getting young children the help they need early and watching them find the balance they need is fulfilling.

Becker County Human Services Social Worker Nick Biermeier, who works primarily with teens, agreed that helping teens during that critical time in their life and seeing them through it is why he does the job he does.

"It's an honor to be able to do it," Dave Erickson said. Erickson works as the coordinator at Stellher Human Services.

Crisis Line

Becker County and White Earth have a crisis line open to adults and children with mental health concerns.

"We cover a lot of bases with this thing," said Don Janes, Becker County Human Services supervisor of mental health services.

Anyone with a concern or a question is welcome to call the crisis hotline and have a team of two mental health professionals come to wherever the caller is, or just have some questions answered regarding concerns.

Most of the time, Nelson said, it's parents with children with behavioral problems that call.

It can be parents, guardians or even law enforcement that call the line, asking for help.

"We deal with a lot of family stress," Janes said. "Law enforcement with this has been great."

Operating since 2009, the calls are answered at the Lakes Crisis and Resource Center, and then mental health care professionals are dispatched where needed.

The line can also be used for support and not necessarily to send out a team to help.

Living in a rural area like Detroit Lakes and Becker County, it's key for entities to collaborate on services. The crisis line is a perfect example of that -- the crisis center, schools, law enforcement, mental health care professionals and their businesses, have all joined together to serve those who call.

Some of the calls parents make can be isolated incidents where a child is acting out in a normal way, "but it's escalated to a point they (parents) didn't know what to do next," Nelson said.

She said that having the crisis line in place has helped professionals identify mental health needs in kids easier, and quicker.

Once needed services are determined, the workers at Becker County Human Services do follow-ups with the school and families to see how the child is doing.

Janes said it may be called a "crisis" line, but ideally, it's best to get help before it gets to that level.

Help can come from any number of sources -- doctors, teachers, counselors, pastors, anyone who is trusted.

"Talk to trusted people in your network," Erickson said.

Nelson said one of the most important questions she asks her clients is if they have that natural support system, whether it is family, church or friends. It's important to ask questions, she added.

"We have a lot of good resources here," Janes said.

The 24-hour crisis hotline phone number is 218-850-HELP (local) or 877-380-3621.

During working hours, people can also call the Becker County Human Services at 847-5628 and ask for mental health intake.

Signs and symptoms

Mental health professionals all say they work with children and adults for isolated incidents that may take just a few sessions to work through, to people needing assistance for years.

Symptoms of anxiety, depression and disruptive behavior are key to watch for -- they just show up differently, depending on the age group. A sampling of symptoms follows:

For infants and toddlers age 0-3, watch for intense distress around strangers, changes in sleep and appetite, failure to grow, extreme irritability and reactivity and verbal expression of anger.

In pre-schoolers age 4-5 years, symptoms include increased clinging, sleep problems, avoidance of new experiences, frequent sadness, excessive crying, whining and tantrums and increased risk of injury.

With school age kids 6-12 years, they include increased levels of avoidance and worries, sleep problems, difficulty concentrating, unprovoked hostility or aggression, change in appetite, low self-esteem, suicidal thoughts, escalation of disruptive behaviors, hyperactivity, blaming others for mistakes and refusal to attend school.

In adolescents age 13-18 years, symptoms can include drugs and alcohol abuse/use, problems with sleep or appetite, school problems, irritability, social isolation, excessive fatigue, low self-esteem, weight change, school failure and violent behavior.

Mental health doesn't discriminate, Janes said. It can affect anyone -- any economic status, any race and gender, any age group, any person.

Some of the more common mental health issues seen in children include anxiety disorder, attention deficit disorder, eating disorders, depression, bi-polar disorder and schizophrenia.

Causes of mental health issues

While some causes are debatable, one cause everyone can agree on is trauma. Biermeier said when he went through his caseload, just out of curiosity, every case was related to something traumatic in that child's life. Trauma could mean a child having a hard time adjusting to a divorce or death even.

"None of us have perfect parents and none of us are perfect parents," Erickson said.

But that connection between parent and child is critical.

"It's important not to blame parents. We do our best," Erickson added.

Biermeier said unconditional love from family, self-confidence, encouragement from teachers and caretakers, safe and secure surroundings and appropriate guidance and discipline are key to maintaining good mental health.

Estrem said a "major change or disruption in their life and they don't know how to deal with it" is the biggest cause of issues she deals with in kids. Her job is to teach them how to deal with the pain they may be experiencing.

Techniques include breathing exercises, physical activity and simply how to use words to express themselves.

"It sounds so basic -- 'you can tell your friend you're mad. You don't have to hit him,'" she said.

Once she's determined the suitable exercises for children, it's key to work with parents, teachers and daycare providers to continue the treatment.

"The ultimate goal is to fade it out," she said of the issue so services are no longer needed.

Nelson added that education is an important role in good mental health. Children learn from how their parents handle situations, treat them and their methods of getting through the day. When those children then become parents, many pass on their learned traits, good and bad. That can change with education, she said.

Parents may realize what they are doing is wrong for their children, but they don't know how to correct it.

"We all have emotions. We all have bad days. But it's how you rebound," she said. "We all have those moments."

"Our goal is to keep the child where they are," Estrem said. "We want to prevent hospitalization or foster care."

Or imprisonment or treatment centers for teens, she added.

"We want to keep them in their own environment as much as possible," she said.

Another large contributor is drug and alcohol usage.

Biermeier works with teens struggling with a combination of the two. The trick is to determine if the mental health issues would exist if the chemical use didn't, or if chemical use exist if the mental health issues didn't.

Regardless of the stigma that may surround mental health, it's a health issue like any other. If a person had diabetes, high blood pressure or any other treatable illness, they wouldn't just stop treatment, Nelson and Biermeier both said.

"If you don't catch it, in many cases, it'll just get worse," Janes said.

Estrem will be hosting a workshop on mental health May 19 at 6:30 p.m. in the Lincoln Education Center.

Geared toward parents, daycare providers, teachers and others who spend a substantial amount of time with children, the workshop will cover what to look for in kids, what to do and who to call for help.

Register for the workshop through Detroit Lakes Community Education.

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