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This report is about rising rates of mental problems and emotional distress among U.S. children and adolescents. Written by a group of 33 children's doctors, research scientists, and mental health and youth service professionals, the report does three things.
The crisis comes in two parts.
The first part is the deteriorating mental and behavioral health of U.S. children. We are witnessing high and rising rates of depression, anxiety, attention deficit, conduct disorders, thoughts of suicide, and other serious mental, emotional, and behavioral problems among U.S. children and adolescents.
The second part is how we as a society are thinking about this deterioration. We are using medications and psychotherapies. We are designing more and more special programs for "at risk" children. These approaches are necessary. But they are not enough. Why? Because programs of individual risk-assessment and treatment seldom encourage us, and can even prevent us, from recognizing as a society the broad environmental conditions that are contributing to growing numbers of suffering children.
In large measure, what's causing this crisis of American childhood is a lack of connectedness. We mean two kinds of connectedness — close connections to other people, and deep connections to moral and spiritual meaning.
Where does this connectedness come from? It comes from groups of people organized around certain purposes — what scholars call social institutions. In recent decades, the U.S. social institutions that foster these two forms of connectedness for children have gotten significantly weaker. That weakening, this report argues, is a major cause of the current mental and behavioral health crisis among U.S. children.
Much of the first half of this report is a presentation of scientific evidence — largely from the field of neuroscience, which concerns our basic biology and how our brains develop — showing that the human child is "hardwired to connect." We are hardwired for other people and for moral meaning and openness to the transcendent. Meeting these basic needs for connection is essential to health and to human flourishing.
Because in recent decades we as a society have not been doing a good job of meeting these essential needs, large and growing numbers of our children are failing to flourish.
What can help most to solve the crisis are authoritative communities.
Authoritative communities are groups that live out the types of connectedness that our children increasingly lack. They are groups of people who are committed to one another over time and who model and pass on at least part of what it means to be a good person and live a good life. Renewing and building them is the key to improving the lives of U.S. children and adolescents.
"Authoritative community" is a new public policy and social science term, developed for the first time in this report. It is intended to help all those in our society working to understand and improve the lives of children.
Much of the second half of the report is a definition of authoritative communities, an analysis of their role in society, and proposals for strengthening them.
The report proposes three big goals and 18 recommendations. All of the goals and recommendations focus on renewing and building authoritative communities.
The goals and recommendations ask something of all of us. Youth service organizations and youth service professionals. All levels of government. Employers. Philanthropists and foundations. Religious and civic leaders. Scholars. And families and individuals.
Reaching these goals and implementing these recommendations would constitute fundamental social change in our society. The report argues that nothing less will do.
Among scholarly reports on children at risk, this report is distinctive in several ways.
Hardwired to Connect: The New Scientific Case for Authoritative Communities is a report to the nation from the Commission on Children at Risk, a group of 33 children's doctors, research scientists, and mental health and youth service professionals. Our mission is to investigate empirically the social, moral, and spiritual foundations of child well-being, evaluate the degree to which current practice and policy in the U.S. recognize those foundations, and make recommendations for the future.
Our methodology has included interdisciplinary deliberation (including a conference in June of 2002 at Dartmouth Medical School), a comprehensive literature review, and the evaluation of 18 commissioned papers. This report, Hardwired to Connect, is the summary and culmination of our work to date.
The Commission is an independent, jointly sponsored initiative of YMCA of the USA, Dartmouth Medical School, and the Institute for American Values. The commission's principal investigator is Dr. Kathleen Kovner Kline of Dartmouth Medical School.