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  • Writer's pictureSJCBHC Member

Summit addresses mental health needs of St. Johns County children in trauma

By: Colleen Jones, The St. Augustine Record

Discussion of the mental health of young people can be a tinder box of thorny and controversial issues. It’s also a conversation that’s happening more often in these post-Parkland days.

St. Johns County joined the dialogue with a Children’s Behavioral Health Summit Monday at First Coast Technical College in St. Augustine. The event brought together more than 200 professionals working in the fields of education, social welfare, law enforcement, substance abuse, child psychology and healthcare to address what they see as a growing epidemic of children impacted by trauma.

In the 2018-19 school year, 226 children (158 from the home and 68 from school) were hospitalized in St. Johns County for substance abuse or mental illness. The county’s Mobile Crisis Response Team assessed 411 children, also last year, for potentially emergency situations. And in 2018-19, counseling and safe housing were provided for 448 local children.

The panel of speakers at Monday’s summit included Valerie Duquette, director of behavioral health services for Flagler Health+; Dr. Rheka Prasad, a child psychiatrist with EPIC Behavioral Healthcare; Tim Forson, superintendent of St. Johns County Schools; St. Johns County Sheriff David Shoar; and Dr. Luis Anderson, a pediatrician with Community Care Pediatrics.

Anderson said that while general practitioners used to have a greater caseload, these days it is not possible because pediatricians like himself are called upon to deal with more issues going on in a child’s family background rather than just medical conditions.

“I never thought I’d be practicing psychology as well. ... And I had to learn on the job,” Anderson said.

Just some of the issues Anderson sees are grandparents raising children, depression, social isolation, teen pregnancy, ADHD and parental neglect.

The panel discussed best practices in approaching children with emotional and behavioral difficulties, domestic violence, abuse and other adverse childhood experiences, especially how they can be made to be more resilient. Many traumas children experience are linked to problems in adolescence and adulthood, including criminal behavior, self-harm and substance abuse.

“The emotional brain records memory — trauma memory — and there is no delete button,” Prasad said.

The body’s response is to produce cortisol, a hormone that fights stress, but prolonged exposure to it can lead to long-term physical effects.

EPIC, Prasad said, offers wraparound services that address the needs of the child, as well as help heal the family as a whole.

Forson agrees with that approach.

“We can fortify our buildings as much as we want to ... but the answer is honestly about helping children and families move forward,” Forson said, adding that too often the stigma of mental illness keeps parents from seeking help.

Duquette is in favor of expanding community screenings to detect problems.

“Early intervention is prevention; it’s the best way to foster resilience,” Duquette said.

Shoar said he believes kids have it harder these days.

“I think we have today in our country a crisis of culture,” Shoar said, citing active shooter situations and police patrolling schools. “How did we get from a culture where these things happen to now when they’re almost accepted?”

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