The American Counseling Association and the American School Counselor Association were among the cosponsors of the second annual Capitol Hill briefing to draw attention to National Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day, May 8. ACA and ASCA collaborated with other national mental health, counseling and education organizations, led by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, to shed light on the need for comprehensive children’s mental health services in schools and communities.

The briefing, “Children’s Mental Health: Key to Achieving Success in Schools and the Community,” was held so members of Congress and their staffs could hear real-life stories told by individuals who have struggled with mental illness, illustrating the need for state and federal improvements in mental health care. The program emphasized the positive impact effective school and community-based mental health services have on children, youth and their families.

“National Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day creates an opportunity to raise the profile of children’s mental health issues and lower the stigma that prevents so many from seeking help,” said Mark Weist, honorary education spokesperson for the event and director of the Center for School Mental Health Analysis and Action at the University of Maryland. “Together, we can provide the necessary school-based mental health services for children and youth with serious mental health needs and give them the support they need to thrive in their communities.”

Individuals representing the many sides of children’s mental health care joined Weist as honorary spokespersons at the briefing, sharing personal experiences and providing their perspectives on the service delivery system.

Howie Mandel, acclaimed comedian and host of the popular TV game show Deal or No Deal, was the honorary consumer spokesperson at the event. He shared his personal experiences managing obsessive-compulsive disorder and mysophobia, which is the fear of germs. Mandel discussed his childhood growing up with a mental health need and how the stigma surrounding mental health affected his decision to seek help as a teenager. “The things I got expelled for, hit for and punished for as a child, I get paid to do as an adult,” he said, adding that channeling his energy into the creative arts helped him achieve success. He also said he is supportive of nontraditional therapies, including play and art therapy, to help children work through their issues.

As expected, Mandel used humor in relaying his message about the need for mental health services. But he also spoke candidly and passionately, saying he is adamant in his views that mental health should be part of the curriculum in schools. He spoke highly of his youngest son’s school, a private academy in California, for setting time aside each day for the children to openly express their thoughts, worries and fears. A professional trained to recognize “red flags” and help those students who may need additional counseling services supervises the discussion.

The stigma of seeking counseling needs to be addressed not only in schools but also in life in general, Mandel said. “Mental health isn’t a problem if you educate people. I’ve had people tell me, ‘I’ve heard you don’t like to touch things, you count things. Well, I do too. What do I do?’ Well, you don’t call a host of a TV show. That’s the problem.”

Additionally, Mandel said he would like society to become open to the idea of preventative mental health therapy — counseling before a significant problem occurs. “If you aren’t diagnosed but you just want ‘therapy,’ someone to talk to, it’s not covered by insurance,” he lamented. “They have to ‘find’ something to diagnose. That’s what has to change. It’s about prevention.”

Deborah Marriott Harrison, an advocate for children and youth with mental illnesses and their families, served as the event’s honorary family spokesperson. She shared her battle to secure appropriate services for her two sons living with bipolar disorder and addressed changes in the delivery system that would have improved the experience for her and her family. She agreed with Mandel that mental health curriculum should be presented in health classes. Her son Scott also shared details about his experience as a student with bipolar disorder and advocated for changes to increase the availability of mental health services in the school system.

Marvin Alexander, a 20-year-old licensed social worker from Arkansas, was the honorary youth spokesperson. Alexander was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder and oppositional defiant disorder as a child. He discussed the challenges of growing up in Chicago and learning of his mother’s crack addiction. With a streetwise yet empathic air about him, Alexander spoke of overcoming those obstacles, advocating for himself and navigating the juvenile justice system as a youth. “I was criminalized instead of being treated. They said I was a menace to society, but there were other people who saw differently,” he said. Eventually, with the help of counseling and the right medication, he was able to turn his life around. He will soon begin an advanced graduate studies program at the Barry University Graduate School of Social Work in Miami Shores, Fla. Alexander urged the audience to help normalize mental health needs and dissolve the stigma associated with seeking treatment.

The group of honorary spokespersons was joined by event moderator Carl Bell, professor of psychiatry and public health at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and Gary Blau, branch chief of the Child, Adolescent and Family Branch of SAMHSA’s Center for Mental Health Services. “Mental health is essential to overall health,” Blau said. “Mental health services should be family driven and youth guided, meaning families have primary control in decision-making and young people have the right to be empowered and educated in their treatment plans. Comprehensive school-based services work. That’s the one thing these success stories have in common — a system of care. We need to continue our efforts to implement mental health services in schools. This isn’t going to end here.”

“The briefing put a very real face to the need for mental health services in schools,” said ACA President Marie A. Wakefield, who was in attendance with ACA Chief Professional Officer David Kaplan. She added that she hopes those who attended the briefing now will work toward sharing ideas and best practices to fill that need.

The Capitol Hill briefing was hosted by its founding partners, including the Bazelon Center for Mental Health Law, the Federation of Families for Children’s Mental Health, Mental Health America, the National Alliance on Mental Illness and the National Association of Social Workers. Additional cosponsors included the National Association of School Psychologists and the School Social Work Association of America. National Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day is an annual event celebrated during the first full week in May, which is Children’s Mental Health Awareness Week.