Mental health (also called behavioral health) is as important for children as for adults–perhaps even more so, considering the importance of the early years on children’s development. Identifying and treating mental illness at an earlier age gives children a better chance of developing into healthier, more well-adjusted adults. Unfortunately, many children are not receiving the care and attention to their mental health they need.
Although researchers estimate that as many as 20 percent of all children suffer some form of psychological disorder–ranging from depression and other mood disorders, to even more debilitating conditions–they remain a severely under-diagnosed and under-treated demographic.1 This is partly due to limited access to treatment, as well as the fact that children and adolescents exhibit different symptoms than adult patients with the same condition.2 All too often, symptoms of mental illness will be overlooked or dismissed as typical childish behavior, rather than recognized as signs of a condition that, left untreated, can easily worsen and persist well into adulthood.
Clearly, the stakes are high for children, their families, and their communities. Fortunately, there is a growing awareness of the value of early childhood mental health care, and a similar increase in demand for professionals who are able to provide these much-needed services. Working with this vulnerable population to ensure healthy emotional development, and to provide appropriate treatment sooner, represents one of the greatest career opportunities for making a lasting, positive, and profound difference.
So, how can you start working with kids who have mental health needs?
Therapists, Counselors, and Psychology
There are as many specialists as there are mental disorders, and it can be overwhelming at first to figure out which direction to take. Before starting any degree program, you should know that in addition to your education, you will likely need to pass a certification (or licensure) exam to become a practicing therapist in your state.3 As such, you will want to look for a program that is accredited by an official review organization like the Council for Accreditation of Counseling and Related Educational Programs (CACREP).4
Counseling is a particularly good place to begin your career treating children. Becoming a professional counselor or professional human service provider means earning a Master’s degree, such as a Master of Arts in Counseling, or a Master of Arts in Human Services. Psychologists are therapists who have earned a Master’s degree or PhD (and typically have engaged in some sort of research in the field), while Psychiatrists are therapists with a medical degree, and are licensed to prescribe medication.
While psychologists and psychiatrists have a role to play in the long-term treatment of mental illness in young people, there is a critical need for better identification, diagnosis, and crisis intervention that counselors are uniquely capable of providing. Psychologists and psychiatrists both depend heavily on referrals to reach their patients.
Counselors, on the other hand, are often in a position to initiate treatment, identify patients in need of mental health services, and provide the very referrals on which other caregivers rely. The reasons for this have to do with the kind of specialties and career paths that counselors often take.
Mental illness can have a debilitating effect on a child’s whole development: academic, social, and personal. One of the best ways to identify children with behavioral health problems is to work where they spend the majority of their waking hours: school. The symptoms of a child’s mental illness are often most visible at school: bullying, disruptive behavior in and out of class, poor grades/struggling academically, etc. These are frequently mistaken for simple immaturity or deliberate trouble-making and punished, rather than recognized as symptoms of an underlying mental health issue, or a response to an emotional crisis at home.
School Counselors have the ability to get to know the students at their school, work with teachers and parents to identify issues and treat patients before their problems grow worse. This regular contact aids with follow-up and monitoring a child’s progress as much as it does detection and initiating treatment.
When children need counseling, that usually means many, if not all, members of their family will also have a role to play in that therapy, too.5 It may be that some sort of family crisis is behind the child’s need for counseling services (divorce, abuse, addiction, loss of a parent, etc.) or it could be that the family needs some guidance and education to better support the needs of their child patient. In any case, it can be helpful for an aspiring counselor to specialize in Family Counseling.
Family counselors may provide treatment to multiple members of a child’s family, to coordinate their care or to help them work through a shared issue or crisis. This is known as Family Therapy, and is especially common in divorce situations, or in a post-traumatic environment. A family counselor may also have to educate family members on how to cope with their child’s specific illness or disability and the best treatment plans to pursue.
Human Services Professional
Although it is typical for a child to have a pediatrician or family doctor, it is far less common for families to have a therapist keeping track of their mental health. As a result, there are many non-profit groups and social work organizations that seek to make behavioral health services and education available in their communities. Professionals who earn a Master of Arts in Human Service are equipped to organize and collaborate with social workers, community agencies and dedicated volunteer groups.
Human Services studies develop communication skills as well as leadership abilities, empowering professionals to bring much-needed mental health services to marginalized groups, disadvantaged communities, and especially the children and families whose mental well-being might not otherwise receive any formal attention.
Start Your Counseling Education Today
Counselors of all types have the potential to work with children and provide potentially life-saving care. Mental health has long been neglected and misunderstood in the United States, and one of the best ways to change that trend is by working with children and their families to educate, intervene, and treat mental illness earlier. By pursuing your Master’s degree in Counseling or Human Services online with Wake Forest University, you can be a force for positive change and a healthier generation of Americans.