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Sept 14 -- CFS Chair Robert Friedman on Children And Mental Health: Tampa Tribune Op-Ed

Sept 14 -- CFS Chair Robert Friedman on Children And Mental Health: Tampa Tribune Op-Ed

In recent days, in connection with the anniversary of the tragic events of Sept. 11, considerable attention has been devoted to the emotional needs of children. This is good, important and, one hopes, has been helpful to many children in our community and around the world. The reality, however, is that the social and emotional needs of our children have been neglected for many years in this country, creating a serious situation for many children, their families and our communities.

Estimates are that one in 10 children in the United States has a serious emotional disturbance. The disturbances cause great suffering and anguish not only for the children and their parents, but also contribute to difficulties in school, in the community and in the home. All too often, such disorders lead to the tragedy of suicide, the third leading cause of death for teenagers and young adults.

For many children, their first years of life are so filled with violence, loss and inconsistency rather than nurturing, stimulation and stability that they have an uphill battle to succeed from the first days they enter school. The Florida Commission on Mental Health, in its 2001 report, indicates that "the major barrier to school readiness for children is often the absence of needed social and emotional skills." Once children enter school unprepared to learn, the children often embark on an academic career of failure and frustration despite the best efforts of dedicated teachers.

We are fortunate to have many valuable resources in our community. Just recently the Childrenýs Board of Hillsborough County entered into a partnership with the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay Inc. to establish a 211 telephone line to help connect parents with needed help for their children. This is part of an effort to develop an effective system of care for children with mental health needs and their families., a very important effort if we are to develop children who grow into productive adults who make an important contribution to their community.

Such systems of care are critical to helping children with identified needs. However, if we are to make progress in the long run, it is essential that we as a community also strengthen those factors that prevent problems and protect vulnerable children from experiencing poor life outcomes.

The University of South Floridaýs Collaborative for Children, Families and Communities, in partnership with community representatives, has identified five protective factors that have research support and that it believes should be strengthened to promote health and better serve children and families.

These factors are strong connections to individuals who have a positive influence (family members, extended family, friends, teachers, coaches, ministers, mentors, etc.) and to community institutions (schools, clubs and other organizations, places of worship); competencies in various domains, such as academics, social skills, problem-solving, recreation and the arts; a sense of hope and optimism about the future; a commitment to give to others and a sense of responsibility for the well-being of others; and high expectations for behavior and performance.

Based on this protective factors framework, one of our greatest challenges as a community is to create opportunities for children to form as many strong, positive connections as possible. This can be done through one-on-one special programs, such as mentoring, but also through creating environments within schools and communities that foster positive relationships. With the debate in educational circles about the FCAT, for example, an important point is being missedýsuccess in school has been demonstrated to be clearly related to having a positive connection to the school overall and to the staff and students within the school. Such positive connections have been demonstrated to produce positive results that not only have an academic payoff, but carry over to the family and community as well.

The USF Collaborative for Children, Families and Communities, along with its community partners, will be sponsoring a conference on Oct. 29 that will look at the role that these protective factors play in the lives of our children and begin to examine how to strengthen them. We are pleased to invite the community to participate in this meeting

More importantly, we encourage the community to keep in mind that social and emotional functioning is an important part of the foundation for a positive and productive life for children. We must be concerned about it not just on the anniversary of tragic events. Rather, we must be proactive and continually strive to create effective systems of care to serve those in need and community environments that help prevent the development of special problems. Our children deserve nothing less.

Robert M. Friedman, professor and chair of the Department off Child and Family Studies, Louis de la Parte Florida Mental Health Institute, University of South Florida, co-chairs the steering committee for the USF Collaborative for Children, Families and Communities and recently testified on children’s mental health to the U.S. President’s New Freedom Commission on Mental Health. Call (813) 974-4640, e-mail friedman@fmhi.usf.edu. or visit the Web site www.usf.edu/adolescents.

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