Less than a year after children’s mental health was declared a national emergency in the U.S., a new study shows that a growing number of parents are seeking mental health care for their children but are having difficulty finding the resources and help they need.

According to the poll of more than 1,200 parents conducted by the University of Michigan Health C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital in collaboration with the Children’s Hospital Association, a quarter of parents reported wanting their adolescent to see a mental health specialist over the last year.

Nearly half of these parents described challenges getting their adolescent care with a mental health specialist. These included long waits for appointments and difficulties finding a provider who took their insurance or saw children. Only one in five of these parents got a referral from their physician or school.  And, about 10 percent of parents also said they simply didn’t know where to go.

Access to care has long been an issue for millions of Americans with mental illness. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, “nearly half of the 60 million adults or children living with mental health conditions go without any treatment.” There are numerous barriers to care, including a system that is difficult to navigate, the cost of care, areas of the country that lack mental health professionals, and, since the pandemic, an overwhelming influx of new patients.

The Parent’s Role

Lack of access is a systemic problem that requires some fundamental changes in how we approach mental health in this country. As a parent, however, you can be a strong advocate for your child.

Even if they do not appear to be struggling with mental health issues, you can make sure that your child’s primary care provider is doing their duty in caring for the “whole child.” In the University of Michigan study, only a third of parents reported their adolescent had completed a mental health screening questionnaire at their primary care office, only four in 10 said their adolescent’s provider asks about mental health concerns at all well child visits. One in seven said their provider never asks about mental health concerns.

These numbers are concerning as mental health is an essential component of physical wellbeing and should be given attention during any health check.

Finding Help

When you do notice significant changes in your adolescent’s moods and behaviors that concern you, NAMI recommends taking the following steps:

  1. Work with your pediatrician – Pediatricians are trained to observe children and can do an initial evaluation. They will likely have a list of providers to contact and other information about resources. A good pediatrician should be able to guide you in taking the next steps. By providing a referral, they also can make it easier for you to get an appointment in a timely manner with a qualified clinician.
  2. Partner with your school – Under federal law, public schools are required to provide evaluations and care for children who have difficulties that interfere with their ability to learn. This includes emotional or behavioral issues. School counselors and psychologists can offer resources and referrals for therapists. In collaboration with parents, they can also develop plans to support a child’s special needs at school.
  3. Talk to friends – Getting recommendations and guidance from friends or family who have been through similar experiences with their child is extremely valuable. They are experts who can provide insight that most people can’t. They can make recommendations and help you navigate the system.
  4. Check with local behavioral health hospitals or mental health centers – You may be able to find an opening.
  5. If your child is in crisis and you fear for their safety or the safety of others, take them to the emergency room. The social worker or mental health professional at the ER will provide an evaluation and suggest next steps for treatment, which could include hospitalization, if necessary. They can also provide referrals.
  6. Understand your insurance policy – Before starting treatment for your child, educate yourself so that you can make the most of your insurance coverage and seek providers who are more likely to accept your plan.
  7. Research – When you are referred to a clinician, check their qualifications and background online. Usually, you can get a good sense of their philosophy and treatment approaches from their website.

Finally, when you’ve found a therapist, psychologist, psychiatrist or counselor for your child to work with, take the time to make sure it’s a good match. The therapist may look great on paper, but if after a few sessions they don’t click with your child, you might just have to keep looking. The relationship between the clinician and the patient is critical to the success of treatment.   

If you are interested in having your child evaluated, give me a call. I can help you determine next steps.

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