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ISU program works to deflate stigma attached to mental-health disorders

December 10, 2007
ISU Marketing and Communications

Ann Kirkwood, senior research associate at Idaho State University’s Institute of Rural Health in Boise, says she is concerned about the stigma that is sometimes placed on children with mental-health disorders. Because of this stigma, says Kirkwood, children in Idaho and throughout the country often fall through the cracks when it comes to the diagnosis and treatment of mental-health issues.

For the past 10 years, Kirkwood has been the project director of Better Todays, Better Tomorrows (B2T2), a program funded by the State of Idaho that is designed to educate school employees and the larger community on the signs and symptoms of trauma and mental illnesses in youth, and to identify barriers to treatment.

The stigma of being labeled as a child with a mental-health disorder is a realistic concern for children and their families. So is the initial acknowledgment that a mental-health disorder may be to blame for a variety of problems that a child may struggle with.

“Too often, children with mental-health concerns go unidentified,” said Kirkwood. “Unidentified mental-health concerns can lead to things like poor school performance, substance abuse and even suicide.”

This is where the B2T2 program steps in. The aim of the program is to break down the difficulties a child may face when trying to get help with such disorders. Predominantly, a child may feel reluctant to approach parents, educators and others who serve as gatekeepers to proper diagnosis and treatment of the issue or issues.

The main objective of the program is not to diagnose, says Kirkwood, but rather to help people in the community recognize common behaviors children may exhibit. Some of the warning signs are when a child’s behavior changes, perhaps by becoming withdrawn or beginning to speak negatively. A child may talk of harming themselves or others or show signs, such as giving away prized possessions.

Another important component of the program is to break down stereotypes. Children with mental-health disorders do not necessarily come from poor, dysfunctional families, says Kirkwood. According to a report issued by the U.S. Surgeon General, race, ethnicity and cultural background also should not be used to determine who is susceptible to a mental-health problem.

B2T2 works closely with the Youth Suicide Prevention and Intervention Project. This IRH program, which is funded with a $1.2 million grant from the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, functions to provide information and intervention programs for children and young adults in the 10 – 24 age group.

The roots of the B2T2 program began in 1997. While employed at the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare, Kirkwood worked on a mental-health anti-stigma campaign. The project quickly blossomed and in 2000, B2T2 became an official program at ISU.

Initially the program was exclusively aimed at educating school personnel throughout Idaho. In the years since its development, the project has expanded to include parents, foster parents, law enforcement, mayors, judges and people from all areas of the employment sector who have the potential to work with children.

“People are able to sit together in a room,” says Kirkwood.  “No longer are they in little silos but they are working together to help kids.”

As part of the original campaign, Kirkwood, along with the Department of Health and Welfare and Idaho Public Television, produced a documentary titled “Hearts and Minds.” This documentary won an International George Peabody Award, an excellence in public information award from the National Alliance on Mental Illness and an excellence in broadcasting award from the National Educational Television Association.

Since its development, the B2T2 project has trained more than 6,000 people statewide. This past fall, B2T2 trained the entire faculty and staff at two schools districts.

Recently, the program visited the Soda Springs school district and trained not only the school staff but community members as well, including law enforcement. Kathy Hatch, an elementary school counselor for the school district, says that the program has helped school staff members become more direct and open about child mental-health and suicide issues.

The next step for the B2T2 project, says Kirkwood, is to certify more people throughout Idaho to become program trainers. This will ensure that more of Idaho’s youth receives the help they need when they need it.

For further information on the B2T2 program, log onto the project Web site at www.isu.edu/irh/bettertodays.


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