Crittenton CEO, Kathy Szafran on Staying Resilient for WV's Children - National Children's Mental Health Awareness Day

Crittenton Services' President and CEO, Kathy Szafran's Op-Ed "Staying Resilient for WV's Children" Goes Statewide. The piece has been featured in The State Journal, The Charleston Gazette-Mail, and the Huntington Herald-Dispatch.

Today, Thursday, May 4th, is Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day, a national day organized through the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) to focus on integrating behavioral health and primary care for young people.

The future of West Virginia depends on the health of the state’s children.  We need to have a generation of kids who are physically and emotionally healthy, ready to learn in school and join the workforce, productive and skilled. That is a tall order for kids growing up in a state with the highest rate of overdose death in the country, where shrinking populations create isolation, and basic needs go unmet.

Studies show a definite link between early childhood adversity (called ACEs) and future health outcomes. Kids that grow up with abuse, neglect, and household chaos have a higher risk of smoking, alcoholism, drug use, depression, suicide, diabetes, heart disease, COPD, stroke, and cancer. The outcomes aren’t just about “bad behavior.” Advanced imaging technology illustrates structural brain development deficits in children that grow up in adverse environments.

There is plenty of data to indicate that West Virginia’s kids are growing up with adversity—go online, search for national data on any indicator of child well-being by state. Look for West Virginia…keep scrolling down. The challenges seem overwhelming. Wearisome, even insurmountable. To tackle the challenges, we have to be resilient. Resiliency is what keeps us able to survive and adapt, what keeps us strong and flexible to meet the needs of our state’s children.

Resiliency is what we strive to build in our kids so that they can be successful and healthy, in spite of the hardships they are facing. Resilient kids are able to work, play, love, and hope well. How do we build resiliency in kids? By providing connection, consistency, and safety. Those are the basics that guide the work of bringing up capable kids. Crittenton Services provides both residential care (specializing in the needs of girls, especially those pregnant and parenting) and community-based care. Based on our clients, we have plenty of work to do.

Many clients bear the burden of substance abuse in their families. One resident told me that she wanted a mom who would “tell her right from wrong,” but her mom “chose drugs over us kids.”  Two young sisters endured years of abuse from a neighbor, because their father agreed not to press charges in exchange for a steady supply of prescription pills.

There is chronic stress, fueled by economics and dysfunction in families that creates an unstable environment for children that includes neglect, hunger, and exposure to violence. Sadly, child maltreatment seems ever-present. Clients come to us with traumatic histories. Too often our young mothers became mothers as victims of abuse and even incest.

Our clients are strong survivors with a desire to heal, to be loved and loving, to build a successful path for their lives and for their families. Their courage motivates our work; their resiliency inspires us. Like them, we must choose to be committed, rather than overwhelmed.

Now, more than ever, we need to devote our energies to the well-being of our marginalized children and families. In the on-going discussions about West Virginia’s financial stability and economic future, policy makers need to address the adversity our children and families face—if for no other reason, as an investment in public health and workforce development. Let’s observe Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day by reflecting on how all of us may contribute to building a better future for our kids.

Kathy F. Szafran, MA, LPC is the President & CEO of Crittenton Services, Inc., Wheeling, WV. Szafran has more than 30 years of experience in the behavioral health field and is a national speaker and presenter on integrating trauma-informed practice into child-serving systems. Crittenton Services, Inc. is the WV’s only licensed residential behavioral health treatment facility serving the specialized needs of pregnant and/or parenting adolescents. For more information on early childhood adversity and its long-term effect on health outcomes, visit