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Community Forums Examine Mental Health, Early Intervention in PA and Beyond

In the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, the focus has turned, in part, to the mental health system throughout the country.

The conversation brought Congressman Tim Murphy to southwestern Pennsylvania for a pair of community forums on the topic. Dr. Abigail Schlesinger is the Medical Director of Developmental and Behavioral Services for Children’s Hospital and was a panel member.

Schlesinger said such forums are essential in keeping the dialogue on mental health going.

“Communication is a key part of improving things,” she said. “No system is perfect, but I think we should continue to strive to make things better and to figure out where we can plug the holes and improve the safety net.”

The forum in Washington County explored issues related to school safety, including:

  • early detection of mental illness
  • how the treatment for the severely mentally ill has changed over time
  • programs and treatments currently being offered in hospitals, health centers, schools and through the criminal justice system
  • barriers parents face when seeking treatment for a mentally ill child in their community

“I think stigma is still real in our society,” Schlesinger said. “But I’ve seen a lot more interest in people asking, ‘How can we help youth at risk?’ and I find that to be a good thing.”
She said efforts are underway to better train teachers, law enforcement officials and physicians on how to identify and help children with mental illness. But a prevailing problem throughout Pennsylvania and the country is that there aren’t enough trained mental health professionals in communities.

“For a long time, there’s been an average delay of eight to 10 years between onset of systems and intervention,” Schlesinger said. “But we have research studies showing that the earlier kids are caught, the better we can treat their problems, just like in any medical illness. So the sooner we can catch people struggling with anxiety, depression, other concerns, the better we can do to help them and their families.”

The forums took place Monday and Tuesday in Mt. Lebanon and Washington County. Murphy chairs the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations and held an earlier forum on mental health in Washington, D.C.

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