Gaps in Youth Mental Health Care

In this country, there are huge gaps in mental health care for young people. Here, we’ll explore avenues to help close the gap, including how family nurse practitioners and other healthcare providers can address it.

In this country, there are huge gaps in mental health care for young people. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that 13% to 20% of children living in the United States experience a mental health disorder each year—and the prevalence of this trend is increasing. However, according to Mental Health America, only 22% of those who would benefit from treatment for their disorders are receiving it. Here, we’ll explore avenues to help close the gap, including how family nurse practitioners and other health care providers can address it.

Trends in Youth Mental Health Care

Although it’s normal for youth to face intermittent emotional distress of varying types and degrees as they mature, persistent symptoms may indicate the need for further assessment and care. In fact, 1 in every 4 to 5 youth in this country meet the criteria for a lifetime mental disorder.

However, according to a National Institute of Mental Health study, only about 36% of youth diagnosed with such disorders received services, and 68% of that group had fewer than six provider visits over their lifetimes—an indication that sufficient follow-up may not have occurred. Of those who were severely impaired by their mental disorder, only half received professional mental health treatment. Racial and ethnic minorities were even less likely to receive the treatment they needed.

Without the right type of support, all of these youth may face challenges in their homes, school, community and in relationships with others.

The Importance of Early Intervention

In order to help bridge this gap in care, early intervention is key. Since 50% of adult mental health disorders emerge by the age of 14, better treatment success rates can be achieved when mental health issues are identified at an earlier age. Since primary care providers, such as family nurse practitioners, have established relationships with families and more regular contact with their young patients, they are uniquely positioned to provide the early intervention that’s needed.

In addition, a study published in JAMA Psychiatry found that the majority of office visits for children with psychiatric disorders occurred outside of psychiatric practices. This highlights the opportunity for early intervention by primary care providers and need for more effective collaboration with mental health professionals and families to achieve it.

Why Families are Key

A key component of such collaborative efforts is the family unit. Families can help to identify behavioral trends in their children and ensure compliance with treatment. Educating and working with parents on substance abuse, common mental health problems, and basic behavior management skills is an essential aspect of care. Since primary care providers develop relationships with families over a period of time, they are well-positioned to provide timely, age-appropriate advice to help parents identify emerging mental health and behavioral problems when they occur. When it comes to treatment, parents play an essential role in ensuring that medication regimes are adhered to in a safe manner and that children have access to follow-up visits and therapeutic sessions as needed.

Resources for Primary Care Providers

Ensuring rigorous safety and quality standards is essential when it comes to providing mental health care to children and youth in primary care practices. To support his need, the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) created an online resource specifically for primary care providers. There are also a number of other resources available for nurse practitioners and other primary care providers from NAMI and organizations such as the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration, the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, the National Institute of Mental Health, the National Association of Pediatric Nurse Practitioners, and the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

Although the gap in youth mental health care is an ongoing problem in this country, increased collaboration among those who care for this vulnerable population can lead to earlier intervention and more effective results.

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