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Screen early for behavioral health

We all know that kids are likely at some point to behave in ways their parents would prefer them not to. Maybe the behavior is mischievous – maybe it’s even dangerous – but much of it boils down to kids learning how the world works and how to interact with the people around them.

Sometimes the undesirable behavior may be indicative of a problem. Though sometimes disputed and often misunderstood, mental health problems can and do affect even small children. Depression, to name just one example, can strike kids as young as 3 [1]. Unfortunately, it can be hard to sort out which behaviors are normal parts of the growing-up process and which behaviors suggest something deeper.

Early screening can help make that determination. For example, Early and Periodic Screening, Diagnosis and Treatment (EPSDT) exams, available to all children on Medicaid, begin at birth and are intended to cover all areas of physical and behavioral health.  In Nebraska, 96% of eligible babies were examined in 2009. However, continued screening drops off as kids get older. Only 57% of eligible children ages 1 to 9 received at least one exam [2].

Early screenings are a key opportunity for parents and health-care providers to take action if a problem is identified. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), childhood mental health disorders can lead to a “downward spiral” if left untreated. It makes sense. Just like a bad case of the flu can distract a child from learning numbers and letters, so too can poor mental health. The knowledge gained during early childhood builds a foundation for a lifetime. If something interferes with this learning, kids get stuck playing catch-up for years – and even into adulthood [3].

The trick is in catching illness early. The sooner a problem is identified, the sooner parents and doctors can work to intervene. And the kid can get back to the business of being a kid.

[1] “Interventions Show Promise in Treating Depression Among Preschoolers,” National Institute of Mental Health, http://www.nimh.nih.gov/science-news/2011/interventions-show-promise-in-treating-depression-among-preschoolers.shtml.

[2] “Together for Kids and Families Indicator Report: Updated December 2010,” Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, http://dhhs.ne.gov/publichealth/Documents/TFK_Indicator_Report.pdf.

[3] “President’s New Freedom: Commission on Mental Health,” National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), http://www.nami.org/Template.cfm?Section=New_Freedom_Commission&Template=/ContentManagement/ContentDisplay.cfm&ContentID=28321.

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