GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Mental health specialists are raising the alarm about the state of children's mental health.
A new national poll shows that one in four adolescents has seen a mental health specialist. This report comes after children's mental health was declared a national emergency in the United States in October of 2021.
The poll, conducted by the University of Michigan Health C.S. Mott Children's Hospital, also shows that only 4 in 10 parents say that their children's primary care provider asks about mental health concerns during regular visits.
In addition to primary care physicians not asking about mental health, nearly half of parents reported difficulties getting mental health care for their adolescents.
The good news for West Michigan is that some of those concerns are already being addressed.
"We have a clinical service here that's supporting local pediatric offices in Grand Rapids to try to help them be in the best position to treat mental health needs before they need to come into our specialty doors. And I think that program has been going really well," said Heide Rollings, Child Adolescent Psychiatrist at Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services.
"In addition to this, we're also partnering with the state to explore ways to increase our child and adolescent psychiatry services, which we really hope will address the access concerns in the community," Rollings added.
Screening for mental health issues
According to the poll, a third of all parents say that their adolescent has completed a mental health screening questionnaire at their primary care office.
“Regular check-ups are the best time for providers to discuss potential mental health concerns,” said Mott Poll co-director and Mott pediatrician Gary L. Freed, M.D., M.P.H. “If parents feel their adolescent’s provider is not being proactive in raising these issues, they should bring it up with them.”
Adolescents should feel comfortable in seeking help from a mental health specialist, Freed added.
But, only about a quarter of the parents polled said they thought their adolescent would talk to them about a possible mental health issue, and even less would be open to talking to their primary care provider.
"I think, if I had to give advice to parents is to, you know, make space to listen, maybe do it when there's not a lot of stress happening and just point out what you're observing as factually as you could, like, I noticed you're not going to school, or that you're spending less time with friends or you know, spending more time in your room. Those are common complaints we hear as early signs to decline," said Rollings.
Identifying warning signs
Pre-pandemic, one in five adolescents had a diagnosable mental health disorder, with depression and anxiety being the most prevalent. And several reports show that these challenges may have worsened during the pandemic.
"Certainly depression and anxiety have been on the rise, and we're seeing more emergency room and outpatient visit numbers for children in team presenting for new complaints or follow up complaints," said Rollings about the increase in West Michigan.
There are several signs you can notice in a child's behavior that would prompt concern for their mental health.
"I think looking out for your child, or teen feeling more like withdrawn, not doing the activities that you notice they previously were doing. If you've noticed large shifts and how they're eating or sleeping, I would be more concerned about that and want to make sure those conversations are happening," Rollings said.
Another area to look at to see if a child may be suffering from mental health issues is their schoolwork.
"And certainly if they're declining in school, or changing the way they were doing schoolwork, either engaging in it less or doing worse than they had been before, these would all be signs to me that it's time to, you know, tune in, ask some questions and decide if you need to seek out more support to your primary care doctor," Rollings added.
If an adolescent is experiencing any of those issues, consider talking to them about mental health and seeking professional help.
Barriers in receiving mental health care
Even after recognizing a problem with a child's mental health, many parents are finding it difficult to navigate the health system or find treatment options.
The national poll reported that nearly half of the parents surveyed had difficulties getting their adolescent care with a mental health specialist.
There were also reports of long wait times for mental health specialists and some difficulty in finding a provider who takes their insurance.
"I think because of the increased volumes, you know, our mental clinicians that work with children, teens are certainly doing their best to get everybody in, but we do know, there's a bit of an excess struggle for families. So it's sometimes it's longer wait times to get in to see a therapist and psychiatrist," Rollings said about mental health care in West Michigan.
Parents are encouraged to reach out to their child's primary care physician for help in finding a mental health provider.
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