Rick Warren: Caring for the Mental Health of O.C. Children

10.09.14 | by Orange County Register

    Today, Oct. 10, is World Mental Health Day, set aside to focus on the more than 450 million men, women and children around the world living with mental illness. In the U.S. alone, 60 million people will struggle with a mental health crisis this year. Many will suffer quietly, trying to hide an illness that is often frustrating, frightening and even considered shameful to many. Others, watching their jobs, families and personal stability continue to deteriorate, will seek emergency help from a local health care facility. In that case, the wait may be excruciating, and they may or may not get the helpful assistance they truly need.

    For children, the situation is particularly alarming, both nationally and here in Orange County. Talk to pastors, rabbis, educators, health care professionals or anyone else on the front line and you’ll find they agree: Our mental health services are severely inadequate and have reached a breaking point.

    In California, mental health concerns are the most common reason for hospitalization of children, accounting for 11 percent of hospitalizations. That number continues to rise every year. In fact, the number of mental health inpatient hospitalizations for children has increased more than 30 percent since 2007. And yet, in our county of over 3 million residents, there is not one inpatient psychiatric bed for children under age 12! Children over age 12 don’t fare much better in Orange County, with only 32 psychiatric beds for children over age 12 to receive inpatient treatment.

    Like all complex issues, the root causes are debatable. Health care executives lament the rising cost of inpatient mental health services. Insurance reimbursements for mental health have been decreasing in recent years, and government officials must juggle allocation of limited resources. But everyone agrees that this crisis in caring for the mental health needs of our children is growing – and that we cannot keep ignoring it.

    While all of these factors need to be addressed, there is a first step that you and I, and every citizen of Orange County, can take: We can begin reducing the stigma of mental illness by talking about it openly. The fact is, you already have friends, family, neighbors and co-workers who struggle with mental illness. But because of myths and misconceptions, they are reluctant to share their struggles, or those of their children, and are usually hesitant to seek help. Only half of the parents concerned about their child’s mental health ever speak with a care provider, and less than half seek treatment for their child.

    A second step you can take is to become an advocate for a more coordinated system of care, particularly for children, between health providers, houses of worship, schools, businesses and law enforcement. Currently in Orange County, coordination of mental health services is almost non-existent.

    The facts remain: one in five children will suffer from a mental illness during their childhood, and 50 percent of people with lifetime mental illness will have their symptoms by age 14. Suicide is now the third leading cause of death in children between the ages of 10 and 24.

    Having lived and served in Orange County for 35 years, I know our strengths. We have more than enough talent and resources among us to not only fix what’s broken, but to create the model for the nation. With our brilliant academic institutions, award-winning researchers, state-of-the-art health care facilities, innovative businesses, nationally-known houses of worship and so many other outstanding institutions and groups, I believe this is the time, and this is the county, to create a 21st century model of mental health care – both for children and adults – that is sustainable, scalable and reproducible.

    With this goal in mind, my wife, Kay, and I recently co-hosted, with the Children’s Hospital of Orange County, a gathering of leaders from key institutions to begin discussing how a coalition of compassionate people and organizations might coordinate a campaign to solve this long-neglected problem. I hope, one day, to say that the movement began in Orange County, and I invite you to join us.

    Rick Warren is pastor of Saddleback Church. Today, October 10, Saddleback Church is simulcasting “24 Hours of Hope,” a free global online event for World Mental Health Day.