Frances Harding, SAMHSA directorFrances M. Harding serves as director of the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s Center for Substance Abuse Prevention, and is recognized as one of the nation’s leading experts in the field of alcohol and drug policy. The center provides national leadership in the federal effort to prevent alcohol, tobacco and drug problems. As part of an executive leadership exchange within the agency, Harding recently served as director of SAMHSA’s Center for Mental Health Services, whichleads federal efforts to treat mental illnesses by promoting mental health and preventing the development or worsening of mental illness when possible.

Harding also serves as the lead for SAMHSA’s Strategic Initiative on the Prevention of Substance Abuse and Mental Illness, which will create prevention prepared communities where individuals, families, schools, faith-based organizations, workplaces and communities take action to promote emotional health and reduce the likelihood of mental illness, substance abuse, including tobacco, and suicide. As National Public Health Week comes to a close with a focus on mental health and emotional well-being, Frances Harding, director of SAMHSA, offers her insights into public health interventions to address mental health challenges.

Approximately 20 percent of children currently have, or will have at some point in their life, a mental health challenge. Approximately 10 percent of children will have a serious emotional disturbance that significantly impairs their ability to function at home, at school or in the community.   

A significant amount of research provides evidence that many of these disorders can be prevented. Implementing evidence-based interventions effectively assists in delaying or even preventing the onset of mental, emotional and behavioral disorders as well as avoiding the associated economic costs in the school, health care and judicial systems. Intervening in a child’s life with appropriate evidence-based services increases the likelihood of academic success, and can reduce the risk of delinquency and substance abuse. Early intervention also can increase the child’s capacity to develop social skills, resolve conflicts, and reduce the risk of depression and anxiety. 

Young children who receive these early interventions are more likely to grow to adulthood with better social and emotional skills. For example, by implementing the evidence-based Good Behavior Game in elementary school, researchers have found that classroom aggressive and disruptive behaviors are reduced. Aggressive and disruptive behaviors in as early as first grade are risk factors for drug and alcohol abuse, tobacco use, violence and other high-risk externalizing behaviors later in life. A simple, inexpensive early intervention such as the Good Behavior Game has the potential to improve the life of the child and to positively affect the lives of their family members and their schools and communities.

By making the promotion of mental health and the prevention of mental, emotional and behavioral disorders a priority, we can build emotional health and enhance the mental well-being of our nation’s children and youth.

Richard Lucey Jr., Harding’s special assistant, will be participating in a National Public Health Week roundtable discussion on the correlation of mental health, equity and substance abuse at Morgan State University on Friday. A live webcast of the event is available here.