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Reporters Notebook: Findings on Teen Mental Health, AIDS Brochures, Child Abuse

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New York City--A startling increase in the number of adolescents being admitted to private psychiatric hospitals is indicated by several new studies, researchers reported at the annual meeting of the American Psychological Association.

What the researchers termed the "runaway phenomenon" of the increasing institutionalization of young people was the topic of a seminar at the conference here last month. Citing their own work and other recent studies, the researchers said the number of youths admitted to private psychiatric hospitals increased by as much as 400 percent from 1980 to 1984.

Moreover, they said, the increase occurred despite little evidence that hospitalization is the best treatment for troubled adolescents--or that the proportion of disturbed teen-agers who exhibit hard-to-handle or "extreme behaviors" is any greater than it was a few years earlier.

"One of the conclusions that we can draw is that there is compelling indication that there is excessive hospitalization of children and adolescents," said one of the researchers, Rodney L. Lowman, a clinical psychologist at the Duke University Medical Center in North Carolina.

One reason for the increase, Mr. Lowman said, is that most health-insurance plans provide hidden incentives for hospitalization. He said such plans typically reimburse parents for 80 percent of the cost of hospitalizing their children, but pay only half the cost of most forms of out-patient care.

"Interestingly enough," noted another researcher at the seminar, Steven Gutstein of the Houston Child Guidance Center in Texas, "in an age of Reaganomics, the federal government has really been silent on this phenomenon."

In a paper presented at another seminar during the four-day convention, a Minnesota researcher reported that most educational mate4rials on acquired immune deficiency syndrome are written at the reading level of college sophomores.

"That means that many of those brochures are written at a reading level beyond 80 percent to 90 percent of the general public," said Mark Hochhausen, who is director of health education at the Boynton Health Service at the University of Minnesota. "I think that's educational malpractice on the part of the people putting the brochures together.''

In his study, Mr. Hochhausen reviewed 16 aids brochures that were written for the general public. They included "Facts About aids, " issued by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and two pamphlets from the American Red Cross, "aids and Your Job" and "aids, Sex, and You."

Educators who write their own curricula on the subject generally do a better job of tailoring the reading material to their students, he noted.

A panel of psychologists examined the ways that teachers and school environments contribute to the maltreatment of abused children.

According to Marla R. Brassard, a researcher at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, teachers view abused children as less socially and academically competent than their peers. In one study, she noted, nearly half of the maltreated children had been retained or referred for special-education services.

"At least with these samples of poverty children, there's a very high possibility that most of these kids will end up in special education," she said. "And child protective services are often unaware of the other mental-health or educational services that the children are getting."

One possible solution for schools, she said, would be to include a child advocate on the committee that draws up individualized education programs for handicapped students.dv

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