Providing Resources for Families and Children Facing Behavioral Health Issues is Personal
May 10 is Children's Mental Health Awareness Day, and May is Mental Health Month. Today, Joanna E. Lindell, D.O., a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Advocate Children’s Hospital in the greater Chicago area, shares why children's mental health is important to her.
I am passionate about the current challenges we face in treating children and teenagers with mental health issues. I’m confident my practice mirrors that of my colleagues across the nation. All of us are seeing more kids who need help due to a shortage of psychiatrists and a rise in behavioral health issues. We are scrambling to find the resources to effectively care for them.
There are just not enough of us. In Illinois alone, there’s a major shortage of child and adolescent psychiatrists; with only about 100 of us statewide to serve approximately 300,000 kids under the age of 18. That’s why we need to be creative in looking for and designing solutions.
We need to find solutions quickly. In many cases, suicide and severe mental health issues are highly preventable and treatable—if there’s early intervention. While we’ve come a long way in raising awareness, many families aren’t aware of resources, fear a stigma or being labeled for getting help, or they simply cannot access services in their community. Getting professional help can make a world of difference for kids and families. Planting a seed early can promote a change in behavior and outcomes.
A personal issue
For me, the topic is extremely personal. I truly believe if my twin brother had received help early enough, he would not have committed suicide at the age of 28. Peter struggled with mental health and medical issues throughout his teenage years. While in hindsight we know he was deeply depressed, he hid it well. My parents tried to intervene, but Peter refused help. In 2007, those unresolved issues prompted him to take his own life. He would still be with us today had he gotten the help he desperately needed.
Today, many families are facing similar mental health issues and stressors. So many kids are acting out, and parents are struggling to understand why. Technology is playing a huge role. Social media, cyberbullying, graphic material—all are forcing children and teens to respond to things they sometimes can’t comprehend. It’s leading to distorted perceptions of reality while creating increased levels of anxiety and stress.
While technology is fueling the issues, it can also fuel solutions. There will still be challenges, but telehealth is a reason for hope. Telecommunications technology allows for virtual visits and services in places, many remote, where mental health professionals are hard to find. At Advocate Children’s Hospital, we’re planning to implement a pediatric telehealth program for behavioral medicine. Our colleagues who treat adults have already done so successfully.
While we don’t need fancy medical equipment or tools to do our work, we do need ongoing engagement with our patients and families. And while telehealth can’t replace one-on-one interaction for assessing a child’s condition, it can assist in ongoing medication management and counseling. It will allow us to interact with families more routinely and with more success.
We will still be challenged to recruit child and adolescent psychiatrists, but telehealth can help extend our team of psychologists, social workers and counselors for the benefit of families. It’s also critical to our efforts that the government and insurers resolve billing issues related to virtual care. I join my colleagues in urging our policymakers to fund and provide reimbursement for telehealth programs.
We might have a shortage of individuals trained to provide psychiatry, but telehealth would go a long way to bridging the gap and providing access to care for thousands of children across the country.