Counties, Both Wealthy and Poor, Struggle to Supply Children’s Mental Health Providers

by Mona Noroozi

I was fortunate enough to graduate from University High School, the top public high school in the state o­f California, ranked eighth best nationally. Over the next few years, the abrupt passing of several admirable and successful former classmates indicated that even an upbringing of opportunity could not protect the families of my community from tragedies such as suicide, drug overdose, and preventable deaths.

Today, one in five American youth suffer from mental illness. These statistics span across racial, socioeconomic, and cultural demographics. As the number of affected adolescents continues to grow, 80 percent of those who could benefit from mental health assessment and treatment never receive help.

Of the many potential causes for the gap between need and treatment, the devastating shortage of mental health providers remains an indisputable problem.

Though Orange County is not frequently considered an “underserved” area, it mirrors most of the nation in facing an extreme shortage in the availability of children’s mental health services. Currently, there are only 70 practicing child and adolescent psychiatrists (CAP) in the region who are responsible to meet the demands of more than 750,000 children.

The crisis persists even when considering the minority of these children with severe mental disorders who require the ongoing care of a CAP. National numbers suggest that of the approximately 150,000 Orange County children struggling with mental illness, only 2,800 will ever receive access to care. Even for those with access to care, waiting lists continually lengthen, with average wait times of nearly eight weeks to meet with a pediatric mental health specialist.

The good news is that multiple studies have definitively shown that when mental health disorders are identified and treated early, we can successfully improve outcomes and help our youth lead productive lives. Early diagnosis and treatment can significantly advance adolescent development during a critical period of intellectual, social, and personal growth, resulting in effective and even potentially life-saving therapies.

Representative Karen Bass (D-California) is one of the few California legislators who has co-sponsored legislation that would provide a loan relief program for pediatric mental health providers to address these shortages. However, lack of funding has resulted in a continual decrease in the number of child and adolescent psychiatry residency training programs.

It is time to turn these calls for action into reality. By assuring greater support and funding of mental health services for children and youth struggling with serious mental illness, we can improve the lives of the next generation and avoid unnecessary tragedies.

Mona Noroozi is the communications coordinator for the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

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