Children’s mental health system needs community support

OKEECHOBEE NEWS – Are you concerned about children’s mental health? In light of recent events in our nation, children’s mental health is a discussion that should be taking place in all communities, including ours. A Children’s Mental Health System of Care is being implemented in Okeechobee County, and we need your input to make it successful.

What is a system of care? To paraphrase the official definition by Stroul, Blau and Friedman (2010), A System of Care (SOC) is a coordinated network of community-based services and supports for children and youth with (or at risk for) mental health challenges – as well as their families. An SOC builds meaningful partnerships with families and youth in their community – taking their culture and language into account – all to help them function better across their many environments and throughout their lives. A true SOC focuses on three core values – it is family-driven and youth-guided; community-based; and culturally and linguistically competent.

The System of Care approach is fundamentally focused on child and family – in which the needs of the youth and their family are the center of an ever-evolving ring of services and supports – both personal and professional. In being “youth-guided” it is the child’s mental health that takes the front seat. Their return to mental well-being is the catalyst for the entire process. Families are no longer excluded from their child’s mental health care and its system or only allotted a partial view from the “cheap seats.” Instead, they are welcomed into the fold as full partners at all levels.

Families are given a voice – asked about their particular needs and, beyond that, their hopes, dreams and ambitions. In turn, those desires are taken into honest account, not dismissed as frivolous, but focused on and tailored in a way that help families progress beyond their current challenge and – hopefully – used as a tool to face challenges that may arise in the future.

The family voice is also crucial to ensuring a successful System of Care. Families are encouraged to be vocal about obstacles they and their child have faced in the past. Has a lack of transportation kept you from attending appointments? Did a negative connection with professionals lead to an avoidance of them now? Or, do you have positive experiences to share regarding your child’s mental health and treatment? Speaking to all of these experiences helps the System of Care grow and ensure the best mental health care in our community.

For Okeechobee to have an effective System of Care, it is the care of the community – the youth and families therein – that matters most. By bringing together and supporting those agencies which already exist in our community, families are offered a supportive base of services to meet their needs, all within the confines of their neighborhoods, schools and our community.

From this structure of a community-based system, family and youth-led organizations also evolve – allowing all community members, not just those in positions of leadership, a seat at the table when it comes to children’s mental health and wellbeing.

Furthermore, by incorporating local agencies, talent and insight together, we can create our SOC to fit the unique needs of children in Okeechobee.

Calling upon the voice and experiences of locals to create the structure best fitting their community.

While not always immediately recognized, Okeechobee itself is a very diverse community. As such, cultural and linguistic competence is incredibly important. When building and utilizing an SOC, the language and culture of the families and youth involved is taken into account. Any barrier to a child’s mental well-being that can be removed, is removed. Open-mindedness to culture should be expected at every level in a system of care – including the unique culture of each individual family.

Interested in learning more about our local System of Care? Join us for a meeting on April 19 at 6 p.m. The meeting will be at Indian River State College in the Williamson Center. Children are welcome. A light dinner will be provided, and there will be activities for the children to do. Help us build a System of Care for Okeechobee that supports the mental health of children and youth across our community.

For more information about this event, mental health services or questions about the SOC, please contact: Jane Kaufman, Okeechobee SOC family coordinator, at 863-462-5125, extension 135.

Leah Suarez is a freelance writer.

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