The Three Pillars: A Focus on Children's Mental Health

May 27, 2017

May is Mental Health Awareness Month.

On Lake Effect, we’ve looked at various issues surrounding mental health such as trauma, substance abuse, and the need for mental health nursing and other professions to help the Milwaukee community. Many assume mental health concerns are those of grown adults, but one psychologist is encouraging parents, teachers, and caretakers how to look out for a child’s mental health.

Dr. Steven Dykstra is a Clinical Psychologist with the Milwaukee Behavioral Health Division and is the director of the County Trauma Response Team. Part of his job is going out into the community after a traumatic event occurs to ensure youth and family have the support they need to move forward. 

Just as children have physical developmental milestones like walking, they have mental and emotional milestones. "We hope to see children who are moving out and exploring their world, forming relationships with other people, who aren't so afraid and worried that they don't talk to anybody but their caretaker," he says. He also notes that they should be balancing their own needs with fitting in with the rest of the world. 

Dr. Dykstra says that there are everyday practices that can help ensure a child’s healthy development in their daily experience, starting with "the three pillars:"

1. Sense of safety and security: this changes over time, but particularly when they're young, children need a concept that the world is a safe place and someone is going to take care of them

2. Developing, establishing and benefiting from relationships: a child needs an opportunity to form meaningful and supportive relationships

3. Development of language: this leads, in turn, to the development of reading skills. Children who read and write well are in a good position to be successful in school which leads into overcoming life challenges. 

Dykstra says there are some children for whom some of these pillars, including language development, are a struggle. Nonetheless, "it's always important that we calmly and without shame or judgment identify these things as soon as possible and get the best kind of help and intervention that we can."

For any child who is struggling with these pillars, or even for adolescents experiencing mental health struggles, Dykstra notes that "one of the most important things...is communication. If somebody knows a child and has a concern about that child, [it's important] that they share concern with the caregiver."

Ultimately, parents need to step out from behind the stigma when getting treatment for their children. "Parents don't hesitate, and rightly so, to bring their child to the doctor because they think [the child] might have an ear infection or they're worried about that rash," he says. "We don't have any shame about that. But issues of mental health have more stigma attached to them, so we don't ask. We wait until it's clear, until it's obvious. It'd be better if we didn't." 

Additionally, neighborhood events can play a large role in their growth and adjustment. "For every front page tragedy that we read about that directly affected four or five or 10 or 15 people, there are dozens, hundreds of others who are more worried tonight, who feel less free and secure tomorrow," Dykstra says.

"Until recently we haven't been nearly as mindful of those ripples on the pond," he notes, but the Behavioral Health Division is moving forward with this new focus in mind.