More than 1 in 7 kids in the US between the ages of 6 and 18 (7.7 million children, to be exact) have a mental health disorder as of 2016, and nearly half of them are not getting treatment. Mental health issues, if not addressed while still young, can result in detrimental physical, social, and worsening mental health consequences, and difficulties transitioning into adulthood.
Unfortunately, this is not something new.
Many barriers exist in getting children the care they need. While we as a nation are working on destigmatizing mental illness, families still express concern because of the stigma that comes with having a mental illness. A parent may not think twice about taking his or her child to see a heart, lung, or kidney specialist if needed, but to make the decision to access mental health services is a much bigger deal. Among some cultures, mental illness is seen as a weakness, rather than for what it really is – an illness with risk factors, symptoms, and diagnostic tests that needs treatment in order to get better, just like any other medical illness.
Another reason for hesitation among families and communities is the cost. Mental health treatment expenses can be a lot, and on top of that, it usually involves a long-term plan. Insurance coverage is lacking: some insurance policies only cover certain diagnoses, allow for a limited number of mental health appointments, or have high co-pays and deductibles. There isn’t a consistent mechanism for insurance companies to cover mental health costs, and the mechanisms that do exist are usually complex and hard to understand.
Even if there was adequate coverage and families would welcome services, there isn’t enough workforce supply to meet the demand. There has been a shortage of child and adolescent psychiatrists in the US, with fewer than 17 providers for every 100,000 children in need of care. Families would need to book appointments months in advance, putting their child or teen at risk for their condition worsening as they wait for treatment. On top of that, the various services involved in supporting the children – the education system, health care system, juvenile justice system, and child welfare system – lack communication, which causes these families to easily fall through the cracks.
So, what can we do about all of this?
If we can’t bring kids to mental health services, let’s bring the services to them.
Children and teens can go to their pediatrician without hesitation, for example. In fact, they often have to, whether it is to get their vaccinations, sign off on physicals for school, or just get regular checkups. So why not put mental health services under the same roof? If families still get to work with the health providers they know and trust in the comfort of a familiar environment, this can quell some family fears and barriers, and even make communication among all the different health providers on the team easier.
The Children’s Community Pediatrics network in Pittsburgh, PA has a behavioral health program where pediatricians work together with psychologists, therapists, and psychiatrists to manage psychiatric disorders and other behavioral health issues. They manage medications and offer various therapies right in the pediatrician’s office, so that both mental and physical health can be used together. While more work still needs to be done, these types of practices are becoming more prevalent, and similar programs are being established throughout the US. As more and more pediatricians join forces with mental health providers, mental health issues can be tackled early and the rates of mental illness brought down, to allow more children the opportunity to become the healthy adults they deserve to be.
Does your pediatrician work with mental health providers? If so, have you used these resources before, and how did they work for you? If not, do you wish that your pediatrician had mental health services in his/her office? Why or why not? Share your thoughts and experiences below!
This SOVA blog post was based off Dr. Edith Bracho-Sanchez’s article from CNN, “Nearly 1 in 7 US kids and teens has a mental health condition, and half go untreated, study says.” To access the original post, check it out here.