Louis Josephson: Border crisis requires mental health professionals to act

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As CEO of Vermont's largest psychiatric facility, my day-to-day thoughts tend to center on the mental health and addiction issues that impact people in Vermont and neighboring states. Each year, thousands of adults, adolescents, and children from across the region turn to the Brattleboro Retreat in times of need, and our mission to serve them has never been more critical.

Lately, however, the situation unfolding on our nation's southern border has gotten me thinking about events happening far away from the Green Mountain State—events that trouble many of us in one way or another, and that are particularly worrisome to mental health professionals like myself.

I'm talking about the crisis surrounding children being held in detention at several US Customs and Border Protection facilities on the Texas/Mexico border.

Reports have made it clear that the young people in these centers face major health and hygiene problems. Lack of access to showers, soap to wash their hands, and toothbrushes to brush their teeth is a daily struggle. Many sleep on the floor in cold facilities and do not receive adequate nutrition.

Worse still, children are being left to care for other children without adult supervision or basic resources. One 14-year-old girl from Guatemala who had been holding two little girls in her lap told the Associated Press, "I need comfort, too. I am bigger than they are, but I am a child, too."

Unlike the general public, mental health professionals appreciate the psychological impact these experiences have on children. That's because our training has taught us to see these tragedies through our understanding of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs).

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ACEs are traumatizing events that often have significant emotional and behavioral consequences.

Because young children do not have the language skills to describe or make sense of what has happened to them, their pain and anger is often expressed through aggressive behaviors and bodily symptoms such as loss of appetite, stomach aches, and headaches. We also know that trauma tends to live in the body, so these types of symptoms could even become chronic if left untreated.

Along with fundamental changes in brain chemistry and brain functioning, prevalent outcomes of ACEs also include substance abuse and long-term physical illnesses that last into adulthood.

Vermont Gov. Phil Scott said recently that America is "better than this," and that we should be doing more for refugee children. It's good to hear our political leaders speak out for the rights of children to adequate care. But more needs to be done.

I urge my colleagues in the fields of mental health and addiction treatment to contact your legislators at all levels of government and urge them, as professionals who understand the short- and long-term impact of these conditions on children's emotional well-being, to ensure that America provides for their care and nurturance.

The trauma these children are experiencing is completely preventable. And we are, as Gov. Scott said, "better than this." Let's make sure our leaders live up to the ideals that have made our country a safe haven for people seeking better life. These new refugee children are not unlike our own parents, grandparents, and great grandparents who came to America from far off lands and were treated with a basic human dignity that allowed them not just to survive, but to thrive.

Louis Josephson is the president and CEO of the Brattleboro Retreat.


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