Experts say the mental health of kids and teenagers often falls through the cracks of a system built to handle perpetrators and direct victims of violence.
ST. CLOUD – Paige McConkey leans across the kitchen table in a gray bungalow, talking to 11-year-old Meadow Eberle about times she’s lashed out in unprovoked anger.
Her father was killed in a drunken driving crash 16 months ago. His best friend, almost an uncle to Meadow, was driving and now sits in jail.
“Are you ever angry for what seems to be no reason?” he asks. “You’re dealing with things that are tough to take. You have all these feelings and emotions and they’re going to come out and we want them to come out in a good way.”
McConkey is a mental health practitioner embedded in the St. Cloud police department’s new program aimed at intervening early to help kids grappling with trauma. He starts his new job, funded by private grants, against a backdrop of chronic shortages in mental health services across Minnesota.
“Decades of research show trauma and extreme stress take their toll on children,” said Dr. Abi Gewirtz, an associate professor of family social science at the University of Minnesota. Traumatic childhoods can affect everything from life expectancy to criminal history.
Between 75 and 93 percent of juvenile offenders have endured at least one traumatic event. And child victims of abuse and neglect are 59 percent more likely to be arrested as juveniles and 30 percent more likely to be arrested for a violent crime.
Despite those studies, experts say the mental health of kids and teenagers often falls through the cracks of a system built to handle perpetrators and direct victims of domestic violence and other crimes.
“It’s not just veterans who get post-traumatic stress disorder, it’s kids who get exposed to violence and trauma, even things like tornadoes that aren’t anyone’s fault,” said Sue Abderholden, director of the National Alliance on Mental Health’s state office. “Kids often don’t have the coping skills, so being able to connect with a therapist is really important.”
Legislators increased funding recently to place more therapists in roughly 60 percent of Minnesota schools. But Riverwood Centers, which served five east-central Minnesota counties, closed in March — citing county cuts as the reason it shuttered five clinics that treated 3,000 clients with an array of psychiatric conditions.
St. Cloud’s effort to place a mental health worker in its police department is the only one of its kind in Minnesota.
“To the extent we can be proactive like this, it’s so helpful,” said Gewirtz, who has traveled to St. Cloud to train cops on childhood trauma. She hopes the program will spawn similar initiatives in other counties where greater distances create barriers impeding access to mental health services.
A knack with kids
Meadow Eberle, her younger brother and older sister are among the first 40 children McConkey has talked to since the job was created in March. His caseload includes a 17-year-old who discovered his father’s suicide by hanging and another teen who was robbed by a friend who placed a gun to her head.
As McConkey and Meadow quietly talk, her mother and three siblings sit on a couch in a nearby family room.
“I haven’t seen any of them open up with anybody like they do with him,” says Trisha Eberle, their mom. “He has an amazing, natural connection with kids and a knack for making them feel comfortable.”
When Meadow mentions to McConkey that her 16-year-old sister, Erika, gave her a journal to jot down her flood of feelings, McConkey interrupts his one-on-one interview.
“Hey, Erika, way to go with the journal,” he hollers.
Erika smiles. Her days as a normal teenager ended when her dad died, thrusting her into an adult role as she helps her widowed mom raise her siblings, fueling a swirl of emotions that McConkey has helped her begin to sort through. He has an ability to cut through red tape and long waits for appointments with psychologists.