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Professionals working to address 'crisis in children's mental health'

Professionals working to address 'crisis in children's mental health'
Professionals working to address 'crisis in children's mental health' 03:53

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — Alexandra Salerno knows what it is like to be a young performer.  

She was a professional ballet dancer who saw other dancers and athletes in pursuit of perfection.

"There's this idea, especially with athletes, that they're not able to take a break. They always have to be on," she said.  

Salerno was a speaker and panelist during a recent NAMI Keystone Pennsylvania conference in Pittsburgh centered on youth mental health. NAMI Keystone Pennsylvania, which is based in Pittsburgh, is the statewide arm of the non-profit National Alliance on Mental Illness.

"They always have to be perfect and perform well and do everything right.  It's so unrealistic. We wouldn't ask that of anyone else," Salerno said.

Today, she is a licensed professional counselor and peak performance specialist with Pittsburgh-based KPEX Consulting.  The company offers sports psychology and mental training to athletes, business professionals and other performers around the country. However, Salerno is seeing a troubling trend.

"I've got 7- and 8-year-olds coming into the office with body image concerns (and) comparison. It seems to me that the mental health epidemic is affecting more and more folks at a younger age," she said.

That was one of the reasons for the conference according to Christine Michaels, chief executive officer of NAMI Keystone Pennsylvania.

"There's a crisis in children's mental health right now. And it came to the forefront with the pandemic," she noted.  

The conference was meant to attract more than mental health professionals. It was designed for anyone who works with or engages with young people, including parents, teachers and coaches. 

Some student-athletes find it difficult to juggle everything that is thrown their way with the demand to be the best.

"I have team practices three times a week approximately. And then on the other days, I'm working out on my own, going to the field by myself," said Stephanie Cornelius, a senior at Pine-Richland High School.  

Professionals warn about 'crisis in children's mental health' 03:10

She plays league soccer with the Beadling Soccer Club In Cannonsburg with teammate Hailey Longwell, a senior at Moon Area High School.

"You have high school practice and when you don't have practice, you have games, so there's never really a day off," said Longwell.

Both players are already planning to play soccer in college. At the same time, they said they feel the pressure that they can't mess up or let someone know if they are not doing OK.

It is a culture their coach is working to change. Libby Mascaro is the head coach of the Beadling 2009 Girls Academy Team.  She is working to instill a supporting and loving culture that places the person before the performance.

"They walk in and it's not just, hey coach! They are bee lining for you to ask them a question about their life that's not soccer. They walk in and (I) say, 'How was your brother's piano recital? Or how was your science test yesterday or what's going on?'" 

Mascaro discussed her approach during the youth mental health conference during one of the panel discussions. She said she thinks parents can also ask questions that are intentional and help their children open up about their feelings.

"Maybe they lost, and they get in the car and the child is quiet. The last thing the parent should be doing is saying, 'I can't believe you didn't do XYZ,'" she said.  

Her advice is to take an encouraging approach.

"Just turn around and say, 'Hey, I love watching you play.' And then if they're upset, maybe they talk about it," Mascaro added.

Meanwhile, many schools are seeing a growing number of students facing mental health challenges.

According to a recent State of Education Report from the Pennsylvania School Boards Association, student mental health ranked No. 2 on a list of top challenges that school districts face.

The report said most Pennsylvania school districts are working to address mental health needs through partnerships with local agencies, bringing in local vendors and even hiring staff. 

However, Michaels said there is another added problem. 

"There are shortages in children's psychiatrists, therapists. People were waiting for services before the pandemic and now they're waiting for services. A lot of providers weren't taking new patients," Michaels said.

According to the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry data, currently Allegheny County has 96 psychiatrists. The county would need to hire 12 more to meet the need for child mental health services in the area.  

It has been a frustrating battle for Mandy Davern. She and her husband have tried multiple avenues to find help for their teenager.  But they still have not been able to find the services to fit their needs.

"Whether it's an in-patient juvenile part somewhere, in your hospitals, do something for these kids. Intensive outpatient, anything," she pleaded.

Young African American males are another demographic seeing a disproportionate rise in declining mental health. Michaels said the issue was highlighted in a report by the Congressional Black Caucus several years ago, and mental health groups are working to respond.

"We have a program it's called Sharing Hope. And it's a program to take into the community, African American community, and begin discussions about mental health," Michaels explained.

One discussion the experts say is hard to have is around suicide. The stigma makes it difficult, but it's a necessary conversation to have if a young person is showing signs their mental health is deteriorating.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide was the second leading cause of death among young people between the ages of 10 and 14. Salerno said that sometimes there are signs that indicate a young person is struggling.

"Typically, one of the first things we see is that burnout, that reaching out for help, kind of comments," Salerno said. 

Salerno says some people are afraid to ask, "Is everything OK?" Because the answer might be "No". She says to be supportive and don't think you have to handle it alone.  

"There are crisis resources. There are trained professionals that deal with, that are used to doing safety plans, that will talk to people, mental health providers that can do treatment," she said.

If you or someone you know is in crisis, you can get help from the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline by calling or texting 988.

For more of our special coverage of Kids in Crisis and to learn about the 'Connecting the Dots' documentary, CLICK HERE.

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