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Guest Perspective

Partnering with Communities to Promote Children’s Mental Health
Judy Genshaft
President, University of South Florida
May 7, 2009

Perhaps no other condition affects children and youth as much as mental health disorders, and yet this health issue receives so little attention. A committee of the National Institute of Mental Health concluded that “no other illnesses damage so many children so seriously,” and developmental researchers have indicated that very few childhood problems are as powerful as mental disorders in predicting a wide array of later adverse outcomes if effective treatment is not provided.

As Children’s Mental Health Awareness Week comes upon us (May 39, 2009), it is only appropriate to highlight the importance of promoting healthy social and emotional development in our children and youth. The lack of such healthy development contributes not only to great suffering and cost, but also to substance abuse, poor school performance, violent and delinquent behavior, unemployment, and suicide.

It is estimated that about one in five children have a diagnosable mental health disorder, and about one in 10 children have such a serious disorder that it interferes with their functioning at home, at school, or in the community. The National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine have indicated that one in four adolescents in the United States is at serious risk of not achieving “productive adulthood,” a finding that has a staggering effect for the future of our country.

Since 1984, the University of South Florida (USF) has been privileged to have a national leadership role in efforts to address this problem. USF, through its Louis de la Parte Florida Mental Health Institute, has hosted one of two research and training centers for children’s mental health that are jointly funded by the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. The center, located in USF’s College of Behavioral and Community Sciences, is an interdisciplinary effort that brings together research, teaching, training, and dissemination, and also includes partnerships with community leaders and family members.

Working hand in hand with federal colleagues, and with colleagues at other universities such as Georgetown University and Portland State University, USF has formulated a model for developing community-based systems of care that bring together partners from various service sectors to make available effective services and supports for children and their families. Such systems of care have been developed in communities across the country, and seek to build strength-based, family- and youth-driven, and culturally competent services and support.

USF has been a pioneer in conducting an eight-year prospective longitudinal study of youth with mental disorders in six states that has helped highlight the long-lasting nature of the problems and their serious effects. USF has conducted research on interventions for childhood mental disorders, characteristics of effective systems, strategies for addressing racial and ethnic disparities, financing of services, and effective school-based services.

Most recently, USF has completed the first public health study of the status of systems of care in a random sample of 225 counties across the country. USF continues to play a major role in the national evaluation of the Children’s Mental Health Initiative of the U.S. Center for Mental Health Services, an important effort to improve access to high quality services nationally.

Perhaps most significantly, USF faculty have worked closely with communities and states to support the development and evaluation of improved service systems. USF is committed to a process in which program theories can be tested by scholars in partnership with the community under real-world conditions, new knowledge can be applied, and mutual learning and benefits can occur.

The work of the Research and Training Center, and the Department of Child and Family Studies in which it is housed, has contributed to substantial progress in the children’s mental health field. As awareness of the scope and seriousness of the problem grows through activities such as Children’s Mental Health Awareness Week, USF looks forward to continuing its national leadership role, and to working with other universities and communities to develop, apply, test, and refine the knowledge needed to serve children and families.

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