Prioritizing children’s mental health

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COVID-19 exposed multiple cracks in the mental health system.  

In a recent national poll about children’s health concerns, eight of the top 10 concerns were associated with changes in lifestyle — social media/screen time, internet safety, unhealthy eating, depression/suicide and a lack of physical activity — related to the pandemic. And when the findings were examined by racial/ethnic groups, Black parents rated racism as their top health issue. Racism impacts children’s health in many ways, including higher rates of depression, anxiety and behavioral problems. Black parents were also the only group to include gun injuries and unequal access to health care as top concerns.

The poll was commissioned by Michigan Medicine’s C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital, and the hospital’s COO, Luanne Thomas Ewald, said the findings have forced a more focused conversation on social determinants of health. She led a discussion on health disparities and social determinants of health during the summit. 

Tom Dorney, executive director of The Root Cause Coalition, a nonprofit advocacy organization with a mission to reverse and end the systemic root causes of health inequities, agreed with Ewald that the pandemic brought these health disparities to light. 

“For 10 years I have tried to have conversations, but no one was addressing social determinants and inequities of health,” Dorney said. “It’s a new trend that people actually care about this stuff.”

Kirk Smith, CEO of the Greater Flint Health Coalition, noted that 80 percent of factors affecting health happen outside of the healthcare system.

His organization has spent the past five years focusing on health inequities. Its work has impacted more than 50,000 citizens, reducing ER visits and hospitalizations for children, showing an improvement in missed school days and participation in better health choices. 

The Greater Flint Health Coalition’s efforts also include addressing systemic inequities like transportation.

“It’s not enough to just address the sickness or disease,” Smith explained.

Toxic stress, whether caused by poverty, unaddressed mental health issues or community violence, and its effect on health are a focus of Dr. Katherine Rosenblum, co-director of the Zero to Thrive Program at the University of Michigan.

“Accumulation of stress overwhelms the body’s ability to cope and adapt,” Rosenblum said during the discussion. “Early relationships can help create resilience to mitigate the impact of stress. Supporting parents is key; we support the parent, so they can support their children.”

With the evidence-backed belief that the earliest years of life are critically important and strong relationships are the foundation for a family’s success, Zero to Thrive promotes the health and resilience of families from pregnancy through early childhood with research, education, partnership and service.

“To grow a more reliant tree, you need to have healthy soil,” Rosenblum said. 



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