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Baltimore children 'facing a mental health crisis'

As the Kirwan Commission continues its work, it is important to remember the value that mental health and family support services bring to the lives of Baltimore youth. The commission and the Maryland General Assembly must invest more in these services to help our young people thrive.

Imagine a 7 year old undergoing — up close — a violent incident that takes the life of a loved one. Now imagine that same child experiencing something similar multiple times during their childhood. This is not uncommon for many of our children and youth in Baltimore City.

We are facing a mental health crisis among Baltimore City children. Research shows that an enormous number of young people in the city are repeatedly exposed to traumatic experiences that can cause deep harm, including episodes of violence, sexual abuse, mental abuse, substance abuse and neglect.

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A study found that 39 percent of Baltimore City adults had experienced one or two “adverse childhood experiences” as kids, known as ACEs, while 42 percent had gone through between three and eight of those experiences in childhood — by far the highest numbers in the state.

We know that even one of these childhood traumas can play a profound role on a child’s development and ability to lead a healthy adult life. More of them are that much harder to overcome.

The stress of dealing with violence and other challenges at home is a powerful, toxic force that influences how kids interact, play, learn and grow in the classroom. Talk to the professionals who work in the schools, and they can describe the effect they see on many students.

These school-based professionals also know that providing mental health and family support for children in schools is a practical and effective response. Kids feel safe at school, and it is a natural setting to connect them with support that can help them cope with life stressors so that they can succeed.

Today, however, far too few children in Baltimore City — and other jurisdictions with similar challenges — have access to good mental health care. My organization, Behavioral Health System Baltimore, partners with Baltimore City Public Schools and behavioral health providers to offer behavioral health services in 120 schools, and we know how important this in-school support is to the children we serve, their families and their schools. But we can do better to reach more kids at school with prevention services that so many Baltimore children need.

We made some progress during the last General Assembly session. The Kirwan Commission studying education reform made a powerful case for providing more behavioral health resources through our public schools. As a first step, the major education reform bill passed by the legislature included some modest new funding to add more administrative staff to oversee mental health services in the schools. But far more must be done to make sure all kids are receiving the mental health services they need.

There is a cost involved in providing school-based mental health services, of course. But consider the cost of doing nothing. Without supports, young people are left alone to figure out how to overcome the effects of exposure to trauma. This could negatively impact their ability to finish school, learn a trade, manage their emotions, live a healthy life and be a good provider for their own children. We also know that their risk of chronic disease across the lifetime will be much higher. That means society will pay more to help them as adults, whether through social services, treatment for substance use disorders or mental illness, medical care and other supports.

As a society we are focused intently — and rightly — on academic performance. But we also know that many of our young people need non-academic supports to achieve academically.

As the Kirwan Commission continues its work during the interim, it is important to remember the value that mental health and family support services bring to the lives of our children. The commission and the Maryland General Assembly must invest more in these services to help our young people thrive in schools and in communities.

Stacey Jefferson is associate director, policy and community engagement at Behavioral Health System Baltimore. Her email is Stacey.jefferson@ bhsbaltimore.org.

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