Mental health help so essential

Published 11:31 am Tuesday, May 3, 2011

In my last column, I stressed the need for us to do more to promote the mental health of youth in Shelby County. I shared ways that individuals, particularly those of us with children or who work with young people, can be intentional advocates for their mental health.

Specifically, I suggested we come to understand and not ignore the signs of mental illness, talk with young people who exhibit these signs and make referrals to mental health professionals.

In addition, I suggested that the most important thing we can do in this regard is to model healthy lifestyles that show our young people how to handle the stress that is inevitable in all our lives. There is certainly much we can do individually, but this cause can be furthered to an even greater extent if institutions that serve children and young adults become more involved in systematically promoting mental health.

One way that this can be accomplished is by providing formal activities in schools and other youth programs about skills related to mental health. These programs should not only help participants understand how to maintain their own mental health, but also how to assist others in ways that don’t put them at risk.

Programs can take a page from the positive psychology movement by helping people develop skills such as empathy, adaptability and stress tolerance that make it more likely that they will lead happy and fulfilling lives.

For example, the University of Montevallo recently sponsored a “Mental Health: Keep it in Mind Week” that provided an opportunity for the entire community to come together around this important topic.

The week included sessions on healthy relationships, suicide prevention and stress management. It was an addition to the ongoing individual counseling and educational programs related to mental health available at the university.

Just as important as programming is advocacy for greater access to mental health care. We must find a way to increase the number of mental health providers in Shelby County. The availability of treatment is woefully inadequate.

After we take the aforementioned measures to get people to a point where they realize they need assistance, what a tragedy it would be to have them wait, with their conditions worsening, for the help they need.

Kimberly Barrett is the vice president for student affairs at the University of Montevallo.