One constant in the long political life of Hillary Clinton — First Lady, Senator, Secretary of State, Democratic nominee for president — is a focus on the needs of families and children. Today she joined Dr. Harold S. Koplewicz for a Child Mind Institute summit on the mental health needs of children and adolescents. Willow Bay, Dean of the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, moderated.
The subject was the need for parents, teachers and kids themselves to be better informed about mental health disorders. Recognizing the symptoms — in your family, your classroom or yourself — is the first step that enables the kind of early treatment that can be life-changing.
“A key to this is making sure that information is more available to people who interact with kids,” Clinton said, including parents, family members and educators. Clinton advocated mental health training for teachers and mental health instruction for students.
“Mental health curriculums should be standard in every middle and high school,” Dr. Koplewicz agreed. If you want to destigmatize these disorders, he said, you want kids to understand how common they are. “Kids learn how to take care of their body. They should learn to take care of their brains, too.”
How to get mental health talked about in schools? Groups outside the education system need to come forward to school administrations with a curriculum — a standardized approach developed by experts, not drug manufacturers — and “lobby like crazy to get it into teacher training, into school programming,” Clinton said. “It will need attention and constant persuasion to get it accepted and then implemented.”
The teen brain
Much of the discussion was focused the 2017 Children’s Mental Health Report on adolescence, the period when dramatic brain development makes kids quick learners, intensely emotional and especially impulsive. That rapid development also makes teenagers vulnerable to mental health disorders, poor decision-making and problems with drugs. It isn’t until age 25, or even later, that the parts of the brain that moderate emotion and rein in impulsive behavior become mature.
Teaching kids about brain development — including the greater risk of accidents and addiction during these years — gives them tools and knowledge to make better decisions, Dr. Koplewicz noted. Kids should know, for instance, that “marijuana can be very bad for the teenage brain,” he said. You are more likely to become dependent if you become a marijuana smoker during adolescence than if you start smoking over the age of 24.”
One particular concern is the effect of social media on teenagers. Dr. Koplewicz cited a study that found that eighth graders who were on social media more than 10 hours a week were 56 percent more likely to say they’re unhappy than their peers. Research also shows that teenagers, who are wired to be focused on connecting with peers, will take more risks when they are in the company of peers.
Both panelists stressed the need for moderation of material children and teens are exposed to online. “Because of the internet, children are now exposed to material that’s very difficult to understand, overly stimulating, unrealistic, and sometimes very addictive,” Dr. Koplewicz said. Guard rails are needed to protect kids from toxic material.
“This is an opportune time,” for that, Clinton noted, “because there is a lot of questioning and soul-searching going on about technology — clearly what happened during the election raises that, but it’s much broader.”
Race and unequal access to care
In answer to an audience question, both participants stressed that race plays a part in access to effective support for mental health challenges. Children of color are less likely to get treatment, and that in turn makes them more vulnerable to academic failure.
Race is also implicated in how kids who act out or have discipline problems in school are treated. “Black boys, followed by black girls, are much more likely to be suspended or expelled or punished or put into special ed for behaviors that are at root mental health problems,” Clinton said. The different assumptions — “Is this a child with a disorder or just a disorderly child?” have a dramatic effect on how we treat kids, she added.
Kids who are suspended rather than helped are much more likely to have run-ins with the justice system. Dr. Koplewicz noted that 70 percent of children who are in juvenile justice meet the criterion for a mental health disorder.
Talking to kids about sexual harassment
Finally, an audience member asked how parents should talk to kids about the sexual harassment scandals that have been in the news.
“The number one thing I would tell parents is do not ignore it. Don’t think your kids are not hearing about it, even if they’re young children,” Dr. Koplewicz said. “If you don’t talk to them about it, somebody else is talking to them about it, and it comes out worse when someone else is doing the talking.”
First ask them what they’ve heard and what they think, he said. Your goal is to give them facts, and discuss behavior. “Talk about what is appropriate. What it means to get permission. And to deny permission. Respecting another person. But also respecting their body, their rights, their space.”
Dr. Koplewicz sees our openness in discussing sexual harassment as a watershed moment. “This actually, in my opinion, is one of the best things happening in our society. Women — and some men — have been shamed instead of being able to speak about this. It could change our culture,” he said. “Without parents discussing it and validating it, it’s a lost opportunity.”