A Plea from a Father and a Child Psychologist

Dear Parents of the Tri-state Area,

For those of who have read anything I have previously written, you quickly come to realize just how much I feel that the vitality of our community is critically dependent upon the health of our youth and families.  On March 22, I attended a presentation by Dr. David Smith, Superintendent of EVSC.  The focus was a hugely important topic to us all—adverse childhood experiences (ACEs).  Three primary types of ACEs have been defined:  abuse (physical, emotional, and sexual), neglect (physical, emotional), and household dysfunction (mental illness, domestic violence towards the mother, divorce, incarceration, and substance abuse).  As Dr. Smith noted, the more ACE’s a youth has experienced, the greater their risk for a lifelong myriad of negative health outcomes, including depression, cardiac problems, diabetes, substance abuse, and many other consequences.  Children who experience 6 or more ACEs live on average 20 years less than those who don’t exhibit this degree of traumatic experiences.  It is a tragic, monumental problem that affects every aspect of a person’s functioning, including educational.  I applaud the EVSC for recognizing the importance of this area, and working with various professionals/agencies to find ways to reduce the risk of ACE exposure and to improve the prognosis for those who have experienced many negative circumstances.

But as you can imagine, this initiative is a colossal undertaking and it is critical that our community as a whole be involved in order to facilitate progress.  Relatedly, as Dr. Smith also noted, mental/behavioral issues remain the number one “most pressing need” according to our community health assessment.  In fact, “eight out of nine key informants and 10 out of 10 focus groups cited both mental health & mental disorders and substance abuse as a pressing health concern in Vanderburgh County.”

This problem is only going to increase unless we the parents, the most influential and powerful body in the land, really take this on ourselves as a top priority.  EVSC and other agencies can pour a huge amount of resources and financial backing into improving our community health, but little progress will be made if we don’t see this as a goal worth striving towards.

So what can we do?  Well, first we have to summon the courage and camaraderie to consider how we can increasingly address this issue in our homes, schools, churches, and other organizations.  To start, if we as parents have knowledge of ACE’s that are occurring (in our out of our homes), it is our personal and civic duty to not go silent.  If that means having an uncomfortable conversation with a partner, parent or teacher, making a call to an agency (e.g., to report suspected or confirmed child abuse), reaching out to a parent who is struggling, or any other action, we must take the road that takes care of each other.  Far too many generations have existed under the code of “it’s not my business” while children suffer in really poor circumstances.  You are right.  It is not your business; it is your call.  So please consider what you can do, especially if you yourself were victimized while others “turned a blind eye.”

But beyond the challenge of ACEs, there are actually some much easier ways to transform the mental health of our community if we as parents once again banded together around best practice, not societal norms.  Each of my appeals below is backed by many studies that support a direct connection to mental (and physical) health.  If you disagree with my contention (or just want more information), please consider reading further articles or series noted on my Just Thinking column (www.stmarys.org/articles) about why I think this is so important.  That being said, here are my requests of you, my fellow parents in the Tri-state area, in helping reduce our huge mental health burden:

Please do not give children/adolescents smartphones.  Piles and piles of data suggest that the benefits are limited and the costs can be tremendous when youth have smartphones.  An abundance of evidence suggests that smartphones are directly associated with increased sleep deprivation, cyberbullying, social deficits, traffic accidents/fatalities, sexual promiscuity, academic difficulties, increased distraction, obesity, and pornographic consumption (just to name a few).  I have 8 multi-part series on my site dedicated to this topic, most recently with the September 2016 edition.

Please remove screens from your youth’s bedroom, and work to preserve appropriate sleep amounts:  Over 70% of youth in the U.S. have a TV in their bedroom.  90% of people with anxiety disorders have sleep difficulties; sleep-deprived youth look very much like youth with ADHD.  Reduced sleep duration in young kids is associated with a lifelong risk for obesity, which itself is connected with higher rates of mental health difficulties.  I cannot overstate the importance of sleep as it relates to our mental (and physical) health.  Yet adolescents especially remain one of the most sleep-deprived groups of people on the planet, largely because 85% take their mobile devices to bed.  When sleep is disrupted, everyone loses out.  More on this topic can be found in the February 2015 series.

Please have your youth move vigorously at least 30 minutes every day:  Although this is only half of the recommended amount of exercise that children/adolescents should get daily, it is way more than many are getting.  Like sleep, activity level is closely tied to our mood and attention.  That is why psychological research has demonstrated that a consistent exercise regimen can be as effective in decreasing depressive symptoms as therapy and medication.  The less our kids move, the worse they will feel for the rest of their lives.  The February 2016 series has more on this.

Please make sure your youth drink water more than other beverages, and have at least one natural meal a day:  Like the other two pillars of health (activity and sleep), research continues to amass that shows we are truly what we eat, or at least what we absorb.  Highly processed diets and consumption of sodas and other unhealthy drinks have been shown to be directly connected to attention, behavioral, and mood issues with even young children.  It makes sense:  The brain is only about 2% of our body weight, but consumes about 20-40% of our metabolism.  Every minute, a quart of blood passes through your brain that contains the nutrients and oxygen needed to help it function.  Consider just what kind of “fuel” your child’s brain (and yours) is absorbing.  April 2013 discusses this much more.

My insights are not rocket science.  Yet what I am asking, actually pleading, of you is to consider that your daily choices as parents are of significant importance for the health of your kids and our community, not just minor matters.  Unless we awaken the sleeping giant (i.e., collective parental will), I am not sure that EVSC or any other entity is really going to have much impact on what happens with societal mental health.  This is not a statement of resignation, but of reality.  For if the health of our community and country doesn’t improve soon, we are headed down dire straits.

Yet I firmly believe that even if a minority of parents embraced just the 4 requests above, and even if the serious ACE problem remains, it would take less than a year to see measurable improvements in mental health across the Tri-state area.  What do we have to lose by trying?  And by the way, just so I don’t implicitly communicate a false dichotomy, I want to make one thing clear.  ACEs don’t arise out of thin air.  Often they occur because the parents or caregivers involved (of multiple generations) didn’t take care of their own health, and thus childhood abuse/neglect, substance abuse, divorce, and/or prison ensued even if parents had good intent.  For me, the acronym of ACE also stands for something else besides the original denotation:  Aftermath of Compromised Environments.  Environments become compromised when we as individuals don’t take the needed steps to preserve our health and that of our youth and families.  But imagine if we did.  Our capacity as parents would increase exponentially and lives and our community would be transformed.  Increased parental capacity is the “ace in the whole” no matter how the ACE acronym is viewed.

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