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Opinion: Adults who accept the suffering of others damage the emotional health of children

There’s no better therapy for kids than seeing adults work together to help others

I read with great interest the recent Colorado Sun article about a lack of mental health providers for the needs of Colorado youth.

Laurie Spencer Roberts

As a nationally certified school psychologist, I don’t think the ultimate remedy for the very real needs of Colorado youth is more counselors and doctors, as essential as they are.

To address the root of the problem requires digging deeper into the causes. I recommend that Colorado devote resources to two areas: primary prevention and bystander trauma.

Primary prevention means acting early to address problems before they become acute.

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Here’s an example: home visitation programs, which bring a health worker to visit families with a newborn at home, help create a safe and nurturing home for the family. Decades of research show that spending on such programs returns as much as $9 to the economy for every $1 spent, increasing employment and decreasing homelessness and drug use by parents.

On the same principle, Colorado provides special education to emotionally disturbed children. 

Yet Colorado’s funding of special education, as compared to personal income, is the lowest of the 50 states. Our funding model for schools, which provides each school with a fixed amount of money for each student, encourages schools to ignore children’s mental health needs. Proven prevention programs wither away for want of informed advocacy.

We are a state that prefers low taxes, yet we fail to achieve the tax savings available through investing in primary prevention. 

Next, bystander trauma.

This is what can happen to someone when they witness, for example, a close relative severely injured or killed by another person’s negligence. Most state courts recognize the legal validity of this harm, and consider it to be negligent infliction of emotional distress upon a bystander.

I believe the increased emotional concerns we are witnessing among our youth stem in part from moral injury that we adults have learned to ignore. We are unintentionally but negligently inflicting emotional distress upon our children by failing to address suffering among members of our society.

We teach children that we value responsibility, fairness, caring, citizenship. It is destabilizing to them when they see these character traits ignored in practice. This was recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court 68 years ago, citing the harms of segregation to white children in Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark case that ruled race segregation to be unconstitutional.

We are all aware that the increasingly antagonistic political climate has contributed to the increase in anxiety and depression among young people. Jesuit Friar Thomas Reese has suggested the pope should add toxic political rhetoric and political lies to the list of sins.

Children are naturally innocent and open, and are thus more vulnerable to emotional distress when witnessing the unaddressed suffering of other members of society.

Counseling alone cannot address their trauma. 

What can be done? We can address the problems in our society that cause the kind of bystander trauma that is damaging the mental health of our youth.

For example, we can take a lesson from Housing First, implemented in neighboring Utah. It is effectively addressing the homelessness crisis, and at less cost than our own, inhumane, treatment in Colorado. We are paying more to be cruel! 

Colorado has struggled to address this issue. Any forward movement in collaborative problem-solving will contribute to greater resilience of our state and diminish the toxicity of our politics.

Colorado is, right now, considering how to spend American Rescue Plan funds. I urge Colorado to set an ambitious goal: Spend the majority of this money on empty hotels, convert them to housing, and put a roof over the head of every Colorado homeless person before this year is out.

This would show our youth that adults can work together compassionately to solve problems, in itself a therapeutic intervention.

We will benefit from cost savings in future local-government budgets. Those savings can be used to target remaining children’s education and mental health needs, which would lead to further cost savings.

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

Similarly, there are solutions to preventing violence. While I worked as a school psychologist in Colorado, I steered the piloting of a very successful program that subsequently was awarded a large grant by the Colorado Department of Education. The Interpersonal Cognitive Problem-Solving curriculum is a thoroughly researched way to improve student behavioral and social/emotional outcomes, including academic achievement.

This curriculum is identified as “promising” by the U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention and was identified as a “model” and “exemplary” violence prevention program by the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice as well as the National Association of School Psychologists and the American Federation of Teachers.

We need to commit to implementing programs such as this.

Children’s mental health will benefit from addressing the suffering in our community. Let’s take this opportunity to demonstrate responsibility, fairness, caring, citizenship. Let’s spend half as much tax dollars, for better results, by investing in programs like special education, Housing First, problem-solving curricula, and yes, newborn home visitation.


Laurie Spencer Roberts, of Bayfield, is a nationally certified school psychologist.


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We believe vital information needs to be seen by the people impacted, whether it’s a public health crisis, investigative reporting or keeping lawmakers accountable. This reporting depends on support from readers like you.


We believe vital information needs to be seen by the people impacted, whether it’s a public health crisis, investigative reporting or keeping lawmakers accountable. This reporting depends on support from readers like you.