The prevalence of mental illness has increased across the United States of America and abroad. We need to work diligently towards prevention. The key to any good prevention plan is starting before a problem begins. Children are that starting point. Psychologists are trained to help children in a variety of ways, including reading.
March is National Reading Month. Author John Green has said, “Great books help you understand, and they help you feel understood.” Here Green provides a beautiful framework for the need to incorporate more mental health topics during National Reading Month. As the world transitions from post-COVID 19 pandemic changes, we will better understand the impact on children. Research has documented that COVID-19 negatively impacts mental health. Despite increased widespread struggles with mental health, the stigma against having a mental health problem persists. Reading is a powerful way to help children flourish. Pairing the benefits of children reading with the benefits of learning about mental health topics reduces the stigma of mental health concerns through early exposure.
Early Exposure to Good Things Increases Success
Psychosocial risk exposure in childhood is associated with a greater probability of emotional, behavioral, and academic problems (Ramakrishnan & Masten, 2020). The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated pre-existing risk environments for many children and led to new risk factors developing for others. Research has demonstrated that childhood struggles with reading are associated with behavioral problems and the development of depression and anxiety (Catalano et al., 2003; Miller & Shinn, 2005; Prilleltensky, Nelson, & Pierson, 2001). Logically, if reading problems are linked to mental health problems, then incorporating mental health books—both in general and particularly as part of National Reading Month—would improve mental health outcomes for children. Exposing children to age-appropriate mental health books will contribute to their academic, behavioral, and emotional success.
Stigma Reduction Increases Success
There is a gap between when an individual first begins to experience symptoms of a mental disorder and the start of their treatment. Approximately 1 in 5 youth aged 13-17 experiences a mental disorder at some point during their life. For children aged 8-15, the estimate is 13%. And yet, most children are not exposed to mental health professions or even words like “psychologist” and “therapist” until they are sitting in front of one to begin treatment. We can easily understand how this contributes to the stigma around mental health concerns.
Early Exposure to Helping Professions
- Police Officers and Firefighters: Interestingly, children are exposed early to the professions of police officer and firefighter, both helping professions involving challenging, sometimes dangerous, experiences. Non-threatening exposure to these professions includes cartoon and movie characters such as female bunny police officer Judy Hopps in Zootopia and the male and female firefighters in the cartoon series Paw Patrol. There are also many children’s books, like The Fire Cat, in which these types of professionals play a helpful role. Early on, children experience visits from local police officers or firemen and women at their schools. They even get to see a police car and fire truck up close.
- Medical Doctors: We also expose children to doctors early on. They quickly come to recognize that the doctor is where they go when they are physically ill as well as for check-up appointments. Partly because some children have anxiety about doctor visits, we expose kids to non-threatening depictions of going to a doctor with colorful books and several types of doctors depicted in cartoon television shows, like the veterinarian character Doc McStuffins who helps her stuffed animals feel better.
- Mental Health Professionals: Early exposure to the mental health profession would reduce stigma as well as the anxiety and fear that can occur with a first appointment, especially for a child. Reading is a wonderful way to expose children to mental health topics and the role of mental health treatment providers. Non-threatening, neutral exposure can powerfully reduce the stigma around mental health issues by normalizing and making their treatment visible.
Recommended Mental Health Books for Kids
- The Bee Psychologist: Mom, What is Therapy? by Jocelyn Markowicz, PhD
- The Bee Psychologist: Be Brave Riley Bee by Jocelyn Markowicz, PhD
- The Bee Psychologist: Dark Blue Henry by Jocelyn Markowicz, PhD
- The Bee Psychologist: Meditation Pop by Jocelyn Markowicz, PhD
- The Bee Psychologist: Doris Wins The Race by Jocelyn Markowicz, PhD
- All My Stripes: A Story for Children with Autism by Shaina Rudolph
- Ouch Moments: When Words Are Used in Hurtful Ways by Michael Genhart, PhD
- How Can I Wait When There’s a Treat On My Plate? by Dan Graham, PhD
- Hector’s Favorite Place by Jo Rooks
- You Are Your Strong by Danielle Dufayet
- They Only See the Outside by Kalli Dakos
- Mindfulness for Kids: 30 Fun Activities to Stay Calm, Happy, and in Control by Carole Roman and Robin Albertson-Wren
- Something Happened in Our Town: A Child’s Story about Racial Injustice by Marianne Celano, PhD
- Something Happened in Our Park: Standing Together After Gun Violence by Ann Hazzard, PhD; Marianne Celano, PhD; and Marietta Collins, PhD
- Asperger’s Teens: Understanding High School for Students on the Autism Spectrum by Blythe Grossberg
- My Big Fat Secret: How Jenna Takes Control of Her Emotions and Eating by Lynn Schechter
Increased Awareness Necessitates Action
As the world continues to cope with the disproportionate impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on vulnerable populations, the need to increase awareness and access to helpful resources has become a call to action. Reading can be an inexpensive tool that families and schools can use to combat the negative impact of COVID-19 on children. While reading books may not cost as much as taking the entire family to a movie theater or out to dinner, access to quality books may be limited for some families and schools. With awareness of the positive benefits of reading and reading about mental health on our children, it is time to act swiftly. Federal, state, and local governments should continue to work diligently to improve access to reading resources for children, including mental health books, in all communities. As our First Lady Dr. Jill Biden stated, “There are just so many different worlds you can create through literature.” The world of improved mental health for our children is definitely a place where we want reading to take them.
Barnes, Terri. Jill Biden: The Power of a Story. Booksmakeadifference.com/jill-biden/. Retrieved March 9, 2021.
Catalano, R F, Mazza, J. J., Harachi, T. W, Abbott, R D. Haggerty, K. P., & Fleming, C. B. (2003). Raising healthy children through enhancing social development in elementary school: Results after 1.5 years. Journal of School Psychology, 41,143-164
Gualano, M. R., Bert, F., Martorana, M., Voglino, G., Andriolo, V., Thomas, R., Gramaglia, C., Zeppegno, P., & Siliquini, R. (2017). The long-term effects of bibliotherapy in depression treatment: Systematic review of randomized clinical trials. Clinical Psychology Review, 58, 49–58.
Miller, R L., & Shirm, M. (2005). Learning from communities: Overcoming difficulties in the dissemination of prevention and promotion efforts. American Journal of Community Psychology, 35,169-183.
Prillehensky, I., Nelson, G, & Pierson, L. (2001). The role of power and control in children’s lives: An ecological analysis of pathways toward wellness, resilience, and problems. Journal of Com-munity and Applied Social Psychology, 11,143-158
Ramakrishnan, J.L. & Masten, A. S. (2020). Mastery Motivation School Readiness Among Young Children Experiencing Homelessness. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, Vol. 90, No.2 223-235.
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