If you have a child, chances are the pandemic has taken a toll on them.
One out of three children in Texas experience a mental health disorder any given year. Experts say COVID-19 has worsened that statistic.
And according to Children’s Health – early in the pandemic, the proportion of mental health-related emergency room visits increased 24 percent among children ages 5 to 11 and 31 percent among adolescents ages 12 to 17. The rate of pediatric emergency room visits for suicide is now double pre-pandemic levels.
"If you don't catch cancer until it's at stage four. It's a much harder road with the patient and there's a lot more treatment involved. The outcomes are less clear, and it's just a bigger burden for the patient and their family. The same is true for mental health issues,” said Brent Christopher, president of the Children’s Medical Center Foundation. "We need to identify these as early as possible and intervene as early as possible so that the issues a child may be facing can be addressed head on and stopped in many cases before they escalate and grow to a far more serious level.”
Despite these mental health needs being at an all time high, data shows there is a 10,000-to-1 ratio of children and adolescents to pediatric psychiatrists in Texas.
“It will take a lot of years to continue to grow that pipeline and population of those kinds of specialists,” Christopher said.
Yet, nearly 80 percent of pediatric mental health conditions are mild-to-moderate and can be effectively treated in primary care settings, but only when physicians have the proper tools and support.
To combat the mental health crisis, Children's Health is helping to launch a new program to give parents more access to mental health care for their kids – through their primary care doctor.
"The big question is, where can parents turn? Parents don't know necessarily how to find a pediatric psychiatrist or some kind of mental health specialist. But oftentimes parents do have a trusted pediatrician,” said Christopher. “They'll be able to rely on the support from their community pediatrician. And that's a game changer.”
Earlier in the pandemic, Children’s Medical Center Foundation put out a plea for help to come up with a solution. In just the past year, they were able to raise $27 million from community donations.
Now, Children's Health is teaming up with the Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute to use that money to train pediatricians so those doctors can treat kids with mild to moderate mental health issues directly in the office.
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“By empowering community physicians with training and concrete supports, we can reach children in weeks rather than years, beginning to help them and their families as soon as symptoms first emerge,” said Andy Keller, Ph.D., president and chief executive officer of the Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute. “Care works best for all medical needs when delivered early. Proactive, early intervention through this pediatric mental health initiative will change lives for generations of Texans.”
Pediatricians will be able to obtain certifications to focus on treating depression, anxiety and substance use and will soon have access to more resources through Children's Health and beyond, something Christopher said has never quite happened before.
"That is not the way that we typically approach this issue anywhere around the country. We think this can be novel initiative right here in North Texas that creates a new model for how to address this incredibly pervasive issue for kids and families,” he said.
Christopher added, “How great would it be to be able to turn to that primary care provider and someplace close to home, and know that they are equipped and competent about how they can help assess the mental health needs of their patients? And provide some of those early entry-level interventions that can make a big difference?”
According to Children’s Health officials, the core of the pediatric mental health initiative will be training offered online and in-person at a Children’s Health primary care clinic, the first in the nation to serve as a learning laboratory. The center, which will be temporarily housed at Children's Health Specialty Center Desoto and eventually move to its permanent location at the Reimagine RedBird development, will provide training and consultation to community pediatricians as well as evaluation and treatment for patients requiring specialty care.
Pediatric providers will have access to computer-based training, peer-to-peer learning communities and opportunities to shadow integrated care providers and receive technical assistance. They can also be linked to additional supports to help them broaden and sustain their integrated mental health care capacity.
“Our children are in a mental health care crisis, and it’s time to think differently about how we can address their needs as early as possible,” said Dr. Sabrina Browne, pediatric psychiatrist at Children’s Health and assistant professor at UT Southwestern Medical Center. “Early is always preferable; it increases the odds that suffering will be less and outcomes will be better. This initiative will empower neighborhood doctors’ offices, where families usually have regular access to a trusted pediatrician, to identify and address mental health needs. They are critical to providing children with the care they need when they need it.”
This new program is still in the very early planning stages. Currently, Children's Health is working on reaching out to about 1,000 pediatricians across the North Texas region to get them on board for training. So far, the program will only focus on this area with the potential to expand in the future.
Another next big step is letting families know about it. The foundation is also hoping for more donations to finally reach its operating budget for this initiative of $35 million.
“Donors have rallied generously to make this initiative possible,” said Christopher. “As the initiative grows and more physicians in our community are trained, that ongoing support will continue to be vital. Donors are encouraged to reach out for more information about opportunities to make life better for children by meeting their mental and behavioral health needs.”