March 8 — 12:00 am, 2007

A behavioral health agenda and where it could lead us

What if we could come up with a prescription to boost the social and emotional health of Philadelphia’s youth?

Mayor Street may have been thinking about that when, a year ago, he appointed a “Blue Ribbon Commission on Children’s Behavioral Health” to create a behavioral health agenda for the city’s children and families. Judge Kevin Dougherty of Family Court and Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown chaired this 48-member commission, which included service providers, community leaders, youth, parents, physicians, advocates, and representatives of government. It held meetings all over the city and heard concerns from parents, teachers, social service providers, and other members of the community.

At most of the meetings, complaints about schools, about the Department of Human Services, and about disappointment in government and community far outnumbered complaints about the behavioral health system itself:

“Why can’t the schools be better?”

“Where is there help for young kids?”

“You shouldn’t have to be a detective to find out where to go to get help for your child.”

“It should be easy to get care – not to go on a waiting list.”

The message was clear. To meet the city’s behavioral health needs, all systems and services need to work together and serve kids and families where they are – in schools, in child care settings, in the community.

The commission recognized the community’s responsibility to help all children: whether the kids have a diagnosis or not; whether they are in or out of school; whether they are in their parents’ home or not; whether or not English is their first language; whether they are in child care or high school. In other words, the commission’s goals were rooted in the idea that “all has to mean all” and that all children need the whole community to have their backs.

In a 96-page report, the commission laid out six basic tenets, buttressed by more detailed and specific recommendations for ensuring quality behavioral health services in Philadelphia:

  • Children’s social and emotional well-being is the responsibility of the entire community.
  • Children and families are treated with dignity and respect and given a voice in how they are served.

  • Prevention, early identification, and early intervention activities help children and their families to prevent behavioral health problems or reduce their impact once they arise.

  • Children and families are able to obtain affordable, quality services when and where they need them.

  • Supports and services for children and families are effective and provided by skilled and knowledgeable providers and staff.

  • Greater collaboration by all those serving children and their families produces seamless and coordinated services.

The commission reminded the community of the critical need to support the development of a safe and nurturing environment for all young people – in school, at home, and in the community.

The need for more, better and more varied behavioral health supports for schools was expressed throughout the report, as was the need for improved collaboration between the early intervention and behavioral health systems, between the School District and the behavioral health system, and between the physical and behavioral health systems. The School District pushed for more school-based behavioral health services, more prevention and early intervention programs, and stronger, more supportive networks between schools and community providers.

The report presents in some detail the hoped-for outcomes and the next steps. The Blue Ribbon Commission has now morphed into the Philadelphia Compact for implementation purposes, and $6 million in government and private funds has been promised to help realize the goals. In its broad approach and process, the prescription has been well laid out. The question now is will we be able to fill it?

Will kids and families be able to find out where to get and be able to get the care they need? Will our child care and schools be able to take enough care to help students before problems increase? Will families feel their children are cared for in schools and feel safe in their neighborhoods and in behavioral health consultations? Will local and state government and the School District invest enough to make it work? Can we stop pointing fingers and dig in to make the holistic changes needed?

For more information and to join in the implementation work, go to www.phila.gov/dbhmrs.

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