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Former First Lady Calls for System to Address Children's Mental Health Needs

ATLANTA, GA…Former First Lady Rosalynn Carter is calling on parents, teachers, and health care providers to address a "national crisis" in children's mental health.

"Parents, other family members, and teachers often miss the warning signs of mental illness, and doctors fail to adequately diagnose mental illness in children," said Mrs. Carter. "Concern about this has heightened with the anxiety teachers and parents are seeing since the Sept. 11 attack, but youth always have suffered due to a failure to diagnose these illnesses."

At the 17th Annual Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Symposium, Mrs. Carter recently convened some 200 mental heath experts to assess ways the nation's health care system can better diagnose and treat children's mental illnesses. Their ideas will contribute to the work of a federal task force charged with identifying the key indicators of mental illness in children and adolescents.

"Mental health leaders at the symposium agreed the situation has not improved since the September 2000 Surgeon General's Conference on Children's Mental Health called the burdan of suffering experienced by children with mental health needs and their families a 'national crisis'," said Greg Fricchione, M.D., director of The Carter Center Mental Health Program.

"This month, leaders agreed on a clear need to address the crippling fragmentation of services that exists," Dr. Fricchione said. "They also said we can benefit greatly from a consensus list of practical, easily understood physical and behavioral indicators or signs in children who are in need of evaluation and support."

Parents and adolescents, as well as teachers in schools, officers in the criminal justice system, doctors in the primary care health system, and mental health providers are being consulted in a collective public health effort that ultimately should improve early intervention in the development of children's mental and emotional problems.

According to Dr. Dan Offord, director of the Canadian Center for Studies of Children at Risk, reports show that one in 10 children and adolescents have some significant degree of mental health impairment, but only one in five receive specialty mental health services in any given year.

Symposium participant Brandon Fletcher, a 15-year-old diagnosed with bipolar and anxiety disorder at age 12, said during a panel discussion, "Before I was properly diagnosed, I had been on 20 different medications and had seen at least 10 doctors. I also had tried to kill myself. I can only hope that in the future, warning signs of mental illness in kids will be readily detected so that others and their families will not suffer needlessly."

"Childhood is the most important stage of emotional and cognitive development," said Mrs. Carter. "We must listen to what youth have to say about their own mental health needs. A big part of the answer is including them in the process. The light each of them can shed on possible solutions is invaluable."


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