More care sought for mentally ill children

There were signs: aggression, isolation and acting out in school. But it wasn’t until a police officer showed Cynthia Escamilla a letter written by one of her sons that the mother of seven realized her third oldest was mentally ill.

“The officer told me, ‘This happens to be a five-page suicide letter that your son wrote,”’ said Escamilla, who shared her story Tuesday during the launch of a countywide public awareness campaign to help get treatment to mentally ill children. “On the last page of the letter, before he ended it, (he) said, ‘Before I take my own life, I’m taking a couple of people with me. … That raised a red-flag.”’

Although her son received some treatment for his disorder, Escamilla knows first-hand getting mental health care for children in Clark County is not easy. Services are scattered, at best, she said.

The goal of the public awareness campaign, developed by the Clark County Children’s Mental Health Consortium, is not only to bring more services to children with mental health problems but to encourage parents and youth to seek treatment early, said Hilary Westrom, vice chairwoman of the consortium.

The campaign will also ask legislators to find more funding for services, she said.

It will consist of at least one public service announcement filmed at Cheyenne High School in North LasVegas.

“We have received more legislative funding in the past two sessions, but this time around we’re really struggling with the budget,” said Mike Bernstein, health educator for Southern Nevada Adult Mental Health Services. “We really need more funding to increase services provided to children who are in crisis. There is also a need to provide mental health services to more youth. But that’s what the fight is every (legislative) session. By the time the next legislative session rolls around, so many more people will have moved here. We’re barely keeping up now.”

This year’s legislative session is scheduled to end June 5.

Bernstein said the consortium, which consists of the Clark County School District, child welfare and juvenile justice officials, and local advocates, will present a report in July to the state’s Department of Health and Human Services regarding the need for more services in Clark County.

According to preliminary data, the number of children entering emergency rooms with serious behavioral health problems is on the rise. In 2005, 720 children entered area emergency rooms for behavioral health crises such as suicide attempts, depression, aggression and schizophrenia. Once data is available for 2006, mental health officials expect to see that number increase by 30 percent.

The report also indicates that the number of children experiencing severe behavioral health issues during school hours is on the rise. During the 2005-06 school year, 878 children required immediate attention during school hours because of serious and life-threatening behavioral problems.

That number is expected to increase by 45 percent for the 2006-07 school year, officials said.

Westrom said children who don’t receive mental health treatment often end up in the county’s juvenile justice system.

According to the consortium’s data, in 2005 more than 8,000 youth with serious and chronic mental health problems were in the county’s juvenile justice system. Roughly 3,000 of them did not receive treatment for their problems.

Mental health officials said Tuesday this new campaign is timely given last month’s massacre at Virginia Tech, where a student went on a shooting rampage and killed 32 people on campus before committing suicide.

Though it’s not known if Seung-Hui Cho had ever been diagnosed with a mental disorder, a judge did order him to receive mental health treatment.

“If a child has a broken foot or arm, you’d rush them to a hospital or a doctor,” Westrom said. “If the child is withdrawn or acting out, you might not know there is a problem, but there is help. The sooner you get treatment, the better the outcome; that’s with almost everything in medicine. The idea is to prevent violent acts from occurring.”

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