by Rocco Landesman
HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius offered remarks at the first ever-convening between our two agencies in March 2011. Photo by NEA staff
Today is Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day, an annual observance that encourages communities across the country to discuss, celebrate, and raise the visibility of issues and resources around the mental health of our nation’s young people. The national effort is spearheaded by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). I spoke with HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to learn more about Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day and how the arts can play a part in this important issue.
ROCCO LANDEMSAN: What is National Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day and how did it come about?
KATHLEEN SEBELIUS: National Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day started as a grassroots effort in Oklahoma in 2004 when a SAMHSA Children’s Mental Health Initiative grantee celebrated community partnerships in an effort to raise awareness about children’s mental health. The idea caught on and in 2005 SAMHSA supported a national awareness day to help bring visibility to the local activities. The number of national Awareness Day collaborating organizations has grown from four in 2005 to 134 in 2012.
We use this observance each year to raise awareness about the resilience of children with mental health problems and the effectiveness of mental health services. This year Awareness Day is being celebrated with a national event in Washington, DC, and more than 1,100 communities and 130 national organizations will be involved in Awareness Day activities.
LANDESMAN: I know this is the seventh year of this program. Is there a particular focus to this year’s events?
SEBELIUS: The theme of the national event is “Heroes of Hope.” We define a “Hero of Hope” as a caring adult who provides ongoing support to a child or young person in need. This year there is a special focus on children and youth served in child welfare, juvenile justice, and education systems who have experienced a traumatic event and have thrived in spite of the challenges they face. Through dance, poetry, and spoken word, youth will pay tribute to Heroes of Hope at the National Awareness event. During the event, I will have the opportunity to present an award to Cyndi Lauper for her work on behalf of homeless LGBT youth.
LANDESMAN: How can the arts play a part in supporting the mental health of children—whether or not they are trauma survivors? And can you please speak briefly about some of the medical and scientific research that supports the positive linkages between the arts and health?
SEBELIUS: Art therapists work with youth to express their emotions when words alone are not sufficient. Creative expression of their feelings can help young people process challenges associated with trauma and conflict. Engaging young people with mental health problems in the arts can increase self-esteem and coping skills and can help them reach their full potential.
Some of the more promising work in this area was featured in a 2011 white paper The Arts and Human Development: Framing a National Research Agenda for the Arts, Lifelong Learning, and Individual Well-Being. When we released the paper with the NEA, we also jointly launched an Interagency Task Force on the Arts and Human Development comprised of 15 federal entities, including SAMHSA.
LANDESMAN: What are some practical ways in which we can support the mental well-being of our children at home or in school?
SEBELIUS: There are many ways that adults can support the well-being of the children and youth in their lives, including: spending time with them, creating positive expectations, cultivating their interests, reinforcing them with praise and encouragement, providing appropriate limits and boundaries, and building their self-confidence.