HHS Secretary Hosts Experts on Children's Mental Health

Advocates and specialists gather at GW on National Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day.

HHS Secretary Alex Azar called the U.S.opioid epidemic "remarkable" and "tragic." (Photos courtesy of SAMHSA)
May 14, 2018

By B.L. Wilson

George Washington University opened the doors of the Dorothy Betts Marvin Theatre to medical, mental health care and social service professionals, providers, researchers, advocates and families and youth leaders who work with children, youth and young adults with emotional disturbances and mental health disorders.

The event Thursday night was the annual National Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day hosted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) that this year focused specifically on trauma that affects the well-being of young people, “Partnering for Health and Hope Following Trauma.”

Governors’ spouses from 18 states and the executive director of the National Congress of American Indians served as honorary chairs and were recognized for their work in mental health. GW students Daniel Schwartz and Amber Singh, B.A. ’13, participated in panels on trauma-informed mental health services.

In his presentation to the audience, Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar offered the current opioid crisis as the Trump administration’s reason for prioritizing mental health care, calling it “the first official mental health crisis in our country’s history.” According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, opioids were responsible for the more than 44,000 deaths in 2016.  

“The epidemic is really remarkable and tragic to consider,” he said.

Mr. Azar told the story of meeting a young girl in Dayton, Ohio, who lost both parents and a brother to drug abuse, as well as the grandmother who’d taken her in. When he met her, she was seven weeks clean from her own addiction to opioids and hoping to finish high school.

“Just think about a generational travesty and the impact of the issue you’re talking about for children,” he said.  “Keep someone like that in mind as we try to address this crisis.”

Mr. Azar credited his understanding of the opioid crisis and mental health to Elinore McCance-Katz, the first person to be named assistant secretary for mental health and substance use at SAMHSA. She set the stage for four panel discussions on the effect of childhood trauma on the mental health of youth and adults later in life.

“When we talk about trauma, we’re referring to adverse childhood experiences, abuse, neglect, witnessing violence, experiencing disasters and more,” said Dr. Katz, who is the first psychiatrist to run SAMHSA. “We know from research that children, youth and young adults are more likely to develop serious mental illness and substance use disorders later in life.”

A new report just released by SAMHSA shows that 82 percent of the children in mental health services have experienced a traumatic event.

NBC-Washington, D.C., morning anchor Aaron Gilchrist led discussions with experts from numerous organizations including the American Psychological Association, the American Psychiatric Association, the Anne E. Casey Foundation and the American Academy of Pediatrics.


Amber Singh (l), B.A. '13, and rising senior Daniel Schwartz took part in panel discussions about childhood trauma and mental health.

On the first panel with Dr. Katz was GW student Mr. Schwartz, a rising senior who was diagnosed with anxiety when he was 5 years old. “When children experience traumatic events,” he said, “oftentimes they blame themselves and feel embarrassed or ashamed about it.”

He said young people should be encouraged and helped to advocate on their own behalf.

“They are the only person that is able to identify their needs… That is incredibly important to them actually getting better and healing,” Mr. Schwartz said. “But recovery is possible and things do get better.”

Transforming a child mental health care system to one that is trauma-informed starts with people like such as Mr. Schwartz telling their story, according to Kay Connors, a project director at the National Child Traumatic Stress Network.

“In what we heard, we really heard the negative impact of trauma,” she said, “but we also heard hope of recovery, and I think that is the center of a trauma-informed approach in partnership with families guided by their experiences.”

Interspersed throughout the evening’s discussions, wives of governors from around the country described actions being taken by states to deal with adverse childhood experiences.

Arkansas First Lady Susan Hutchinson described the Childhood Advocacy Center’s work with children about to enter foster care “who have sustained the worst of the worst” of psychological and sometimes sexual abuse.

“We have people trained in child-first protocol for the interview,” she said. “It is not a questioning time. They are not grilled like they would be at times in a police department. They’re authority figures. They’re scary.” Instead Ms. Hutchinson said, “The children come in. We allay their fears.”


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