Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, more than 50% of children in high-risk populations across the nation were not receiving needed behavioral health services and now is the time to act, according to those working in research and advocacy.
In a recent study released by the University of New Hampshire, researchers looked at a national cross-section of 11,896 young children and teens.
They focused on people with symptoms such as depression, anxiety, anger, post-traumatic stress and dissociation.
The untreated portion of high-risk juveniles ranged between 41 and 63%.
Among those 2 to 9 years old, no clinical services were reported for 57% of the children with high levels of adverse childhood experiences, and for 53% of the group with high distress symptoms.
There was no clinical contact for 63% of adolescents aged 10 to 17 years old who had high levels of adverse childhood experiences and 52% of those with high distress symptoms.
David Finkelhor, professor of sociology and director of UNH’s Crimes Against Children Research Center, said the researchers did not gather data specific to New Hampshire, but there were participants from the state in the study.
Finkelhor said better ways are needed to identify at-risk youth, and there needs to be better access to care.
This is particularly true after the COVID-19 pandemic, where children and teenagers were isolated from friends, extended family members and the routine of learning five days a week in-person.
“We need to have more people trained in the field of social work and psychology and counseling who are prepared to deal with kids’ mental health problems,” Finkelhor said.
Last month, the number of children in New Hampshire awaiting psychiatric hospitalization topped 50, according to Patrick Ho, president of the New Hampshire Psychiatric Society in Concord.
Ho does expect that the numbers of children awaiting hospitalization will decrease mostly because in February there was a “stratospheric number of children” awaiting inpatient care, and inpatient capacity for juveniles has been added.
Ho said all areas of mental health care are understaffed in New Hampshire.
“We have a severe shortage of psychiatrists, in large part because we are a very rural state and policies/funding does not really support the practice of psychiatry and it can thus be very difficult to recruit psychiatrists to our state,” Ho said.
Ho suggested changing billing structures to ensure that psychiatrists are reimbursed for treating mental health disorders at a rate commensurate with care provided by other physicians.
Ho said many state legislators are supportive of mental health care, but funding needs to be targeted toward interventions that could treat children in their own communities, as opposed to an emergency room or inpatient unit at a hospital.
Crisis intervention services such as mobile crisis units, partial hospitalization programs and in-home services could help, Ho said.