It’s one of those recent studies, this time headlined as “One in Five Preschool Children in the U.S. Demonstrates Mental Health Issues When Entering Kindergarten.” And check out my headline, above — doesn’t it make your heart beat a little faster? Either you’re worried — really? Should I have my preschooler checked out? Or you’re outraged. Do those researchers have a connection to the pharmaceutical industry? Crazed over-diagnosing doctors, at it again.
But as is true of so many research studies and the reporting on them, you shouldn’t necessarily be worried about your own kids, or outraged on their behalf. But worry and outrage are still exactly the right reactions. That one in five figure, according to a study reported by Dr. Alice S. Carter and her colleagues in a study reported in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, correlates with “persistent poverty beginning in early childhood, limited parental education, low family expressiveness, stressful life events and violence exposure.” In other words, one in five children at risk for mental health issues probably correlates pretty strongly to the one in five children in the U.S. who lives in poverty.
There may be no need to worry more about your own kids, but there’s reason to worry. One in five kids in poverty and at risk for mental health issues is an outrage, and one that endangers the entire country. It’s the highest rate of any Western industrialized nation. Those are kids who are likely to continue to be “at risk,” as teens and as adults, for continuing difficulties in education, in employment, and for giving birth to more at risk children. When we allow kids to be raised in the kind of economic conditions that contribute to those mental health risk, we create a vicious cycle of families who just don’t have the resources to pull themselves up into the middle class.
Of course, politicians, social scientists and pundits can and will argue for hours (actually, for decades) over what should be done to help struggling families. These numbers don’t add much to that debate, although they should at least intensify it. What the headlined research shows more than anything is that the risks of poverty and difficult social conditions start early (something we probably already knew). Helping those kids should start early too.