Lehigh County celebrates Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day
To celebrate Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day, Lehigh County Department of Human Services in partnership with the National Alliance on Mental Illness of the Lehigh Valley, Bethlehem, hosted a program recently at the Lehigh County Government Center, Allentown.
The goal was to raise awareness and show that positive mental health is essential to a child’s healthy development.
“Mental health impacts one out of every five children in our community,” said Josh Bridges, director of Lehigh County Integrated Services, which is part of the Human Services Department.
“The county offers a Youth Mental Health First Aid class for free several times per year,” said Bridges. “It is an eight-hour public education program that introduces the risk factors and warning signs of mental health problems in adolescents, highlights the importance of early intervention, and explains how to help an adolescent in crisis.”
“About 1,600 people have received training over the past 2 years,” Bridges said. “Through role-playing and simulation exercises participants learn how to assess a mental health crisis, to listen nonjudgmentally, to give reassurance, and to encourage appropriate professional help and self-support strategies.”
Another free service the county offers for its residents is the “Child and Adolescent Service System Program.”
Children from birth to age 21 are eligible.
It is a team approach to helping children and their families.
“The more people learn about youth mental health first aid, the better it is for the community,” Bridges said.
During the first hour, organizations in attendance provided information about their mental health support programs.
They included Access Services’ Transition to Independence Process Program in Bethlehem, American Foundation for Suicide Prevention of Lehigh Valley, Boys and Girls Club of Allentown, Bradbury-Sullivan LGBT Community Center of Allentown, Community Bike Works’ Youth Development and Work Ethic Programs in Allentown, Equi-librium Therapeutic Horsemanship of Nazareth, Goodwill Clubhouse of Lehigh County, KidsPeace of Orefield, Lehigh County Department of Human Services, Magellan Health Care’s My Life Program in Bethlehem, Music Therapy Associates of Whitehall, NAMI of Lehigh Valley, and Pinebrook Family Answers of Allentown.
Lehigh County Executive Thomas Muller began the speaker portion of the program with a gracious welcome to everyone in attendance, and highlighted the importance of mental health awareness.
State Rep. Michael Schlossberg, D-132nd, Mariel Hufnagel, a speaker with “Minding Your Mind” of Ardmore, and Craig Thatcher of Coopersburg, a local musician and an advocate for mental health awareness and eradication of stigma, shared their personal experiences with mental illness.
“Mental health has always been a passion of mine,” Schlossberg said. “In middle school, I was diagnosed with anxiety and depression, and attended counseling for it. I have been taking medication since I was 18. Without proper treatment, I would not be able to function.”
“People do not realize the extent of mental illness,” Schlossberg said. “I hope my story is a pivot to that realization.”
Schlossberg is the Democratic co-chair and co-founder of the state’s Mental Health Caucus.
It is made up of one other democrat and two republicans.
“I started the caucus two and a half years ago. We are working on two bills,” Schlossberg said. “One is for mothers in the state’s Early Intervention Program to get treated and diagnosed for postpartem depression. The other is to get a mentoring and treatment program for first responders that suffer from traumatic experiences.”
“The state definitely does not have enough mental health awareness programs,” Schlossberg said. “The best thing a family can do for their children showing possible signs of mental illness is to get them diagnosed as soon as feasible to determine what kind of treatment they need.”
“Minding Your Mind” is an organization that provides mental health education for middle school and high school students, their parents, and their schoolteachers and administrators.
Hufnagel has been a speaker for them the past two years.
“People with mental illness are suffering due to their silence and uncertainty of where to seek help,” Hufnagel said. “I share my personal experiences to help implement prevention, remove shame people may have about their mental illness, let people know they are not alone, and let them know there is help.”
Hufnagel spent the majority of her teenage years afflicted with alcohol and drug addictions which derailed her life.
She did not know how to ask for help.
Her addiction lead to homelessness, incarceration and victimization.
In 2007, she entered recovery and has been able to maintain it since.
Today, she is a student with a full scholarship to Kean University in New Jersey, where she is pursuing a Master’s degree in public administration.
“I had to be willing to be transparent about my fears, emotions, and feelings to start on the right path toward recovery. Getting better involves learning how to live,” Hufnagel said.
“Physical and mental illness should be equally treated,” Hufnagel said.
“When I present to students, I ask them what they think a person with a fever would do for help and what a person considering suicide would do. Most respond that the person with the fever would call their doctor. But they do not know who the person considering suicide could contact for help.”
“Mental health issues among children is not an indication of poor parenting,” Hufnagel said. “The earlier the intervention can take place the better. Good resources to initially reach out to are guidance counselors, psychologists, psychiatrists, community human services departments, and mental health treatment agencies.”
“Try to normalize conversations with a mentally ill child and involve them in the decision-making process when seeking proper help and treatment,” Hufnagel said. “That will help give them a sense of both empowerment and value.”
“Families should attempt to spend as much time together as they can, having conversations at the dinner table and limiting the use of electronic devices.”
“Start to talk openly with your child at a younger age about how they might respond to certain emotions, and encourage them to take care of their physical and mental health equally,” Hufnagel said.
Thatcher had a severe panic disorder for two years during the 1980s.
“That was tough to deal with being a musician,” Thatcher said. “I only got through it when I performed actually, but before and after my performances I felt terrible. I have also had family members afflicted by mental illness, which has taken its personal toll, too.”
Thatcher has traveled globally promoting guitars for CF Martin and Company of Nazareth the past 10 years.
He has also been performing for kids in South American inner cities with South American artist Manuel Garcia.
“Loading up on prescription drugs was not the only answer,” Thatcher said. “Without therapy, I would not have overcome my panic disorder. But I did have to find the right therapist who would listen, and also be both firm and compassionate.
“I got involved with mental health awareness in 2014, after performing at a concert fundraiser for mental health at the ArtQuest Musikfest Cafe in Bethlehem.
“I think when a mental illness is diagnosed and properly treated at a younger age, that person becomes stronger as they get older.
“Talking and thinking about it helps them succeed in life. It can also be treated like any other health issue. People need to know they can still thrive in life with the proper treatment.
“The electronic age though has broken down communication, no one talks to each other anymore.
“Families need to engage in conversation, especially at the dinner table. That is how parents can assess their children’s moods.”
Lehigh County anticipates hosting another mental health awareness program next year.