MIAMI (CBS4) – It’s called the silent epidemic; children and adolescents suffering from mental illness.

Without early intervention it’s considered by many experts to be a time bomb.

One of the nation’s leading experts on mental illness, Miami-Dade Judge Steve Leifman, said time is running out. He’s launched an offensive to identify children in trouble and children who might cause trouble.

“Miami-Dade County has the largest number of people with mental illness than any other urban area equivalent in the nation. That’s 52,000 children and less than one-third have access to treatment,” Leifman told CBS4’s Chief Investigative Reporter Michele Gillen.

Leifman is the architect of a project whose goal is to identify mental illness in students. Beginning in March, the program “Typical or Troubled?” will roll out in a handful of schools across the country.

“It’s scary. Think of the poor kid that has mental illness. He feels so alone, so traumatized,” said Leifman.

Leifman once accompanied Gillen in a rare videotaped visit to the notorious 9th floor of the Miami-Dade jail where cells were crammed with people with mentally illness.

Habsi Kabva, Miami-Dade’s Crisis Intervention Team Coordinator, knows the needs of those with mental illness well. She’s traced problems faced by adults with diagnosed mental illness to their past.

Kabya will help train Miami-Dade school counselors who in turn will train teachers and other school personnel on how to spot red flags in children.

“Sixty to eighty percent of the adults I have seen who are now being treated had signs that emerged when they were children,” said Kabva.

Unlike adults, adolescents with mental illness are even more invisible.

One man who agreed to speak to Gillen by phone about his problems said he tried to hide them since childhood.

When asked about his darkest thoughts, the man said considered ending it all.

“Suicide. I was overwhelmed. I tried to kill myself at 15. You would never think someone that young would consider suicide. I wanted to escape reality. There were no outward signs. I was a loner in school. I was afraid to ask for help because I feared I would be thrown into a mental hospital. You see how movies portray mental hospitals and it was frightening,” said the man.

Experts say there are clues that children may exhibit which should not be ignored. They include sleeplessness (either in the class room or at home), withdrawal from friends and any bizarre rants or writings.

Ava Goldman, Administrative Director for Exceptional Student Education and Student Support at Miami-Dade County Schools, welcomes the project.

“I see this as a wonderful new opportunity and a bright new day for us to identify our students who maybe at risk and connect them to the resources they need,” said Goldman.



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