The link between abuse and children’s mental healthWritten by Emily Arismendy
The first week of May is Children’s Mental Health Acceptance Week and May 6 is Children’s Mental Health Acceptance Day. May is also Mental Health Awareness Month. Although it may not seem directly correlated, mental health goes hand in hand with our work.
Abuse affects the brain, there is no doubt about that. After someone experiences trauma, it can be extremely difficult to cope. Our bodies become dysregulated when something traumatic happens to us.
The mental impact of abuse in children
According to the Child Welfare Information Gateway (CWIG), abuse during infancy and early childhood has been shown to negatively affect early brain development and in turn contribute to negative behavioral health outcomes into adolescence and adulthood. The effects of abuse can have lifelong consequences, including poor mental health, behavioral health outcomes, and increased risk for substance use disorder.
Child abuse is a global public health and human rights issue affecting more than one in three children. Additionally, a study by the University of Birmingham has shown that children who have experienced child abuse or neglect are four times more likely to develop serious mental illness such as psychoses, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder.
That’s why it’s important to prevent abuse before it occurs. Talking about what healthy relationships look like and educating ourselves on how to communicate more effectively may prevent abusive situations. And starting early is crucial, so that we can protect children’s developing brains.
ACEs and Expect Respect
Understanding adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) may reduce the risk of maltreatment and prevent recurrence of abuse or neglect by acknowledging the impact of traumatic events, according to the CWIG. ACEs are potentially traumatic events that occur before a child reaches the age of 18.
- all types of abuse and neglect
- parental substance use or mental illness
- parental incarceration
Expect Respect is a resource available in Austin schools to help students understand what healthy relationships with friends, romantic partners and their parents should look like. Expect Respect uses the ACEs model in their intake process for students in order to access their needs in counseling.
Asking for help and guidance is not a sign of weakness. It is important for parents to examine their parenting style and what they might be doing that can have a negative impact on their child’s development. In Strong Start, they provide parenting classes and guidance to parents who are seeking positive strategies to improve their kids’ behavior and reduce the stress of parenting. The goal is to preserve families and build successful and resilient children by strengthening the parent-child relationship.
Often, we are not able to prevent abuse before it occurs. That is why it is important to have an intervention plan when abuse is happening. That’s where SAFE comes in. Our goal is to provide a safe place for survivors to seek protection and get the resources they need to heal after an abusive situation.
We offer counseling for those who are trying to heal mentally and cope with what they have been through.
Counseling can play a crucial role in the healing process for survivors by validating their experience and restoring their self-esteem. While it cannot change the past, therapy can affect perceptions of the past and help survivors move forward and focus on a happier future.
Fostering and Adoption
Our Foster and Adopt in Austin (FAIA) program provides foster care, adoption services, and kinship care to families in Central Texas. Being in a healthy and safe foster home can have positive effects on a child. For example, a foster care home, whether with a single parent or couple, gives a child the opportunity to develop healthy emotional intimacy, trust, self-esteem and the opportunity to learn valuable life skills.
However, JayCee Migura, the Director of FAIA, says there is also a lack of mental health resources for children in the foster care system.
“Providing mental health for foster children is so important, but there are many barriers. There is a lack of providers who accept Star Health Medicaid, causing many of these children to bounce around to different providers. Mental health in foster care is pertinent to the child’s success because not only are they dealing with the trauma of their past, the removal from their biological family, but also living in a totally different environment different from their own,” she said.
Supporting a child with mental illness
Finally, if you care for a child that is dealing with a mental illness, it’s important to know how to navigate that and help them overcome any challenges they may face. First, listen to them and let them communicate their needs to you. Not everyone has the same coping skills and needs. Furthermore, learn how to communicate with them in the best way that works for them. You want to be as supportive as possible to children. Having people in their life that support them will help build their confidence.
Ultimately, we are not perfect people, and we are not experts when it comes to healthy relationship habits. That’s why it’s important to end the stigma around mental illness, especially in children. We need to normalize expressing how we feel in a healthy manner. And hopefully with the help of educational resources, we can do our best to prevent abuse and trauma for the children in our lives.
Children’s Mental Health Acceptance Day
May 6, 2023 – Children’s Mental Health Acceptance Day is organized by Texas System of Care in collaboration with members of local mental health agencies. Click here for more information.