Roughly one in every five U.S. children and adolescents experience a mental health disorder in a given year. Unfortunately, fewer than half of these youths will receive mental health treatment. This is often due to the stigma around mental health that keeps many children and families from reporting problems and seeking care. It is also a result of the current national shortage of qualified mental health professionals such as school psychologists, clinical psychologists and child psychiatrists.
For many youths in Texas, the past year and half has done nothing but widen the gap between those who need treatment and those who receive treatment. Children have dealt with chaotic back-and-forth transitions between in-person and virtual schooling, natural disasters such as winter storms, floods and hurricanes, and other tragedies such as loss of family and friends due to COVID-19. Clinicians refer to all of this as “acute on chronic trauma.”
As we support the mental health needs of Texas youths, remember that primary care clinicians (pediatricians, family medicine physicians and nurse practitioners) are the ideal first place to seek care. These clinicians are well positioned to manage concerns such as depression, anxiety, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or other behavioral concerns and make informed referrals to mental health specialists in the community. While in-person appointment waitlists for these mental health specialists can be quite long due to the pandemic, virtual appointments are becoming more available and can speed up the timeline to be seen.
Schools serve as another venue in which youths can be supported. School counselors and school psychologists are trained to address the social, emotional and behavioral needs of students. One important piece of Texas Legislation, Senate Bill 11, was passed 2019 to form the Texas Child Mental Health Care Consortium. The consortium was formed to improve timely access to mental health care for school-age children through a number of state-wide programs. One in particular is the Texas Child Health Access Through Telemedicine program. This program links students from almost any public school in the state to a virtual appointment with a mental health specialist for short-term therapy (up to four sessions) completely free of charge. Parents can reach out to their child’s teacher or school counselor and ask them to connect their child to the program. Most children are generally seen within one to two weeks of requesting an appointment.
The mental health system for youths has been overwhelmed the past two years as clinicians work to keep up with rapidly growing demand for their services. Fortunately, primary care offices and schools are often there to offer support.
Jeffrey D. Shahidullah, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of psychiatry at Dell Medical School and a pediatric psychologist at UT Health Austin and Dell Children's Medical Center of Central Texas. Shahidullah is the author of the book "Mental Health Strategies for Pediatric Care," which is published by the American Academy of Pediatrics.