Friday, January 4, 2013
Tuesday, November 13, 2012
By National CASA CEO Michael Piraino
The New York Times reported this week on the apparent increased use of psychotropic medications to help poor children do better in school. In an echo of what we found last year in the foster care system, it appears likely that doctors and parents, recognizing that schools are not going to be able to help their children learn, are turning to medications to improve attention and performance.
The rationale is that if school environments can’t be improved to accommodate the special needs of students, then drug therapy may help students fit into the learning environment that exists.
I understand the dilemma. Children in low-income families are more likely to be distracted and hostile at school. Drugs often used for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder can moderate these barriers to educational success, at least in the short term.
However, when researchers looked into the high use of psychotropic medications for foster youth, they found that many drugs were being prescribed without a thorough diagnosis. These were often powerful antipsychotics that had not been studied or approved for use in children. One of these drugs was risperidone, also mentioned in the New York Times story this week. Its potential side effects include weight gain, restlessness, sedation, depression, insomnia, low blood pressure, high blood pressure, muscle pain, tremors and photosensitivity.
Scary as those side effects are, so are the “side effects” of school failure. They include lower lifetime earnings, poor general health, reduced life expectancy, teen pregnancy, suicide, depression, and engaging in crime and drug use.
Unfortunately, parents’ dilemmas about their children’s education may only get worse. Estimates are that sequestration, if it happens early next year, will reduce the Department of Education budget by $4 billion. The side effects of that would be huge.
When government spending for education is heading down, what are people who care about children’s success supposed to do? Let’s ask all candidates for public office to stop thinking of children as an expense and start thinking of them as an investment. Perhaps the most important one we could make.
This article was originally written for the Huffington Post.
Wednesday, October 10, 2012
Overwhelmed with feelings of isolation and instability, three siblings in foster care have not lived together for five years. The emotional trauma of several home placements and separation resulted in mental health disorders. CASA Volunteer Linda Wallace was on their case, and she learned to understand the signs of emotional distress and implement the appropriate forms of action.
Children in foster care often have a sense of constantly starting over with little stability. "When the children have to deal with new placements, new peers, new rules, new therapists, etc., it makes things more difficult,” Linda said. On Linda’s case, the biological mother had a history of mental illness, which is a common reason why biological parents are unable to care for their children. The children feared spending time with their mother, and because they were separated from each other, their support system was dwindling. Even with counseling, normalcy was a distant goal. "It helps CASA volunteers to realize that with mental health issues, there is a great deal of three steps forward, two steps back,” Linda said.
Symptoms of emotional or mental distress include: sadness or irritability, poor school performance, and unprovoked aggression. According to National CASA, one of the most common disorders among foster children is Reactive Attachment Disorder, which is caused by neglect of an infant’s needs for physical safety, food, and emotional bonds with a primary caretaker. Children with mental disorders are especially in need of contact with a familiar, trust-worthy person like a CASA volunteer. "Children with mental health issues are very different when they are one-on-one,” Linda said; with each child individually, the CASA can focus the conversation and ease any nerves. Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness among youth. Panic attacks and post-traumatic stress disorder can cause the children to be hyper-vigilant of their surroundings, and sometimes, they even relive their abuse and neglect.
Along with watching for signs of mental illness, CASA volunteers should advocate for a mental health assessment and if needed, ensure the child is in counseling. Finally, from teachers to foster parents, significant people in the child’s life should be aware of the child’s emotional and mental health status.
Empathy is a key component to working with children with mental disorders and being a successful CASA volunteer. When a case is frustrating, Linda has a simple trick: "I see the world through the child’s eyes, and I become reenergized,” she said.