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Study in Four N.C. Counties Aims to Help Kids

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Duke Health News 919-660-1306

DURHAM, N.C. -- What are the problems, stress and strains of growing up today? Are they any different for young people who live in rural communities? Where can families turn for help, and how are they treated when they do?

To find the answers, Duke University Medical Center researchers are turning to residents of Franklin, Vance, Granville, and Warren counties.

Through a study called Caring for Children in the Community, the researchers hope to identify the needs of and resources for 9- to 16-year-olds and their families. Conducted by Duke University Medical Center and funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, Caring for Children is now in its second year of study in the region.

Duke chose the four-county area because of its smaller towns and rural areas. "We thought there might be particular problems for rural service providers and families - issues that need to be understood and represented in research on mental health problems and service use," says Project Coordinator Pam Wood. "We want to know about the issues young people and their families in rural communities might need help with, and whether the services available in the community are meeting their needs."

The survey asks about the types of services families use in the community to help with emotional and behavioral problems of young people, how to find those services, and whether they were helpful.

"We need to know what our kids are dealing with and how they're feeling so we can develop appropriate mental health services," says interviewer Kerri King. "We want to know whether families are able to get to the services they need for their children's well-being. I think mental health is an important component of overall health, and too often it gets neglected."

King says one of her biggest pleasures in conducting interviews has been to see how willing people have been in opening their homes. "Residents here want to help," she says. "They care about the wider community, about helping someone else's children. It's been very gratifying to me."

Macon resident Barbara Alston is one such participant. "I work with children, and I know some of the problems they face," says the mother of two, who gave permission for her name to be used because she felt so positive about her involvement. "I thought it was a good idea, and it would help the community out. It did take a fair amount of time, but I don't mind helping out."

Wood describes community support for the study as overwhelming. "They know their participation makes a real difference, not just here at home, but for families and young people across the country," she says. Using the data they collect and analyze, Wood explains that investigators will write articles for journals read by professionals everywhere, which may influence how rural communities offer services to young people who live there.

To ensure that a true cross section of the community is represented, Duke chose families randomly from lists of children enrolled in public schools in the four counties. Researchers initially interviewed almost 5,000 families by phone. Now they're following up by interviewing a subgroup of 1,000 families over a three-year period.

"We want all types of families to participate - those with no special problems or difficulties, and those with serious issues," Wood says. "We're trying to take a general look at the whole population in the rural communities."

Because the study is looking at service use, Wood says interviewers are asking families where they seek help for problems or issues. "We have a large list of services we ask about. We want to know about services from family members, friends, or other adults, from schools and churches, and from agencies and businesses that provide professional care."

Does the region stand to benefit? Yes, according to local mental health providers.

"We will gain a lot of information that will help us better serve the community," says Peter Horner, Ph.D., director of Child and Family Services for the VGFW Area Mental Health Program. "We know there are people who are not being served, or not being served adequately by existing mental health resources. Aside from crisis interventions, somehow we haven't been able to find each other. This survey will give us some hard data about what is needed, and how we can best work as a community to put our resources to their best use."

Duke is in its seventh year of a similar study in the North Carolina mountains. Researchers there say they believe the information gleaned through Caring for Children will be "very helpful in stabilizing and establishing the norms for mental health services for adolescents everywhere. The data are profound, and will revolutionize service provision for adolescents across the country."

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