As a child, I had a firsthand view of how the mental health system was supposed to work. I required special accommodations, and had to move from a large public school to a smaller-scale setting. There, I received in-school access to trained professionals and high-quality therapy and services. Though everything was done correctly, those were some of the most frustrating and miserable years of my life.
To me, this illustrates a fact that is often overlooked -- the decisions to intervene and provide services to children are made by adults. The children, the people who need these services, don’t always have a choice in what sort of interventions they receive. Or when. Or how. Or who provides them.
These services, designed to help, end up imposed upon children who need them without giving them any control or influence over the situation. When I was assigned services, no one asked for my thoughts on the matter. The people who made decisions for me knew me only by anecdote and syndrome, and never let me in on their discussions about my life and future. My parents—who were wonderful people and advocated for me tooth and nail—were not asked for their thoughts, either.
Children’s Mental Health Awareness Week is a time to pay attention to children’s mental health struggles as well as the importance of early intervention. But it is also a time to remember that there is a child involved, a young person with a mental health challenge.
A possible approach to giving these children more agency over their lives could be to use a principle found in clinical studies called “informed consent.” In informed consent, people cannot join or participate in a study unless they are informed of the potential risks and benefits of the study first. For a child to enter a clinical study his or her parents must give their permission, but, in addition, the child also must either agree or decline to participate. This gives the child an awareness of what is supposed to happen, and control over both whether and how that happens.
For a child with mental health challenges, this kind of consultation would give them a chance to thrive on their own terms and in their own way. It could open the door to a whole new world of opportunities for them and help them to make the most out of their early interventions.
Most of all, though, it treats them like people.