Infectious Disease

Pediatricians’ important role in children’s mental health

April 19, 2023

3 min read

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Key takeaways:

  • The United States is in the midst of a pediatric mental health crisis.
  • Most mental health concerns first present at a pediatrician’s office.

The AAP and other groups have declared a national emergency over the pediatric mental health crisis in the United States, which was exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to Benjamin Maxwell, MD the new division chief of child and adolescent psychiatry at Rady Children’s Hospital-San Diego, responding to pediatric mental health issues often starts in the pediatrician’s office.

We spoke with Maxwell about the role pediatricians play in addressing pediatric mental health.

Healio: What are you hoping to bring to Rady Children’s from your past experience?

Maxwell: My clinical experience includes working in both inpatient and outpatient settings, conducting evaluations and assessments, and providing evidence-based treatment to young patients struggling with mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, ADHD, and psychosis. I also have experience working with families and other health care providers to ensure coordinated and comprehensive care for my patients. These are the experiences that drive me to find new approaches to improve access and the quality of care that is provided to kids in our region.

Healio: In your opinion, is there a shortage of pediatric mental health clinicians?

Maxwell: Without a doubt, there is a shortage of pediatric mental health clinicians across the country, which makes it challenging for families to access timely and appropriate care for their children. This shortage is particularly acute in underserved and rural areas where there may be few mental health professionals available.

Healio: What developments are planned for Rady Children’s in the mental health sphere within the next few years?

Maxwell: At Rady Children’s, we will continue to invest in and expand mental health services to meet the growing demand for pediatric mental health care. Unfortunately, these services have been underfunded for decades, leaving us with a lot of work to do. To maximize our impact, we are looking at innovative ways to improve staffing, improve access to care and support the development of healthy minds by partnering with community organizations.

Healio: How can pediatricians advise parents on how to get help for their own mental health issues?

Maxwell: As part of our Transforming Mental Health Initiative, we have trained more than 200 local primary care pediatricians on caring for kids with mental health challenges. This type of care puts the family in focus. Parents are encouraged to seek their own mental health care to ensure they are showing up as optimally as possible for their kids. [Editor’s note: Research has shown that improving parental mental health can help reduce inequities in children’s own mental health care.]

Healio: What can pediatricians be doing to respond to the mental health crisis?

Maxwell: The reality is that most mental health concerns in kids first show up in the office of a trusted pediatrician. Pediatricians play a critical role in identifying and addressing mental health concerns early on. This can include screening for mental health issues, providing referrals to mental health professionals when appropriate and providing education and support to families. Pediatricians have also proven to be some of the strongest advocates for policy change and resources that support pediatric mental health care.

Healio: Are there resources available for pediatricians who may not feel equipped to handle patients’ mental health issues?

Maxwell: Yes, [these resources] include consultation services with mental health professionals, continuing education courses and access to resources and toolkits for identifying and managing mental health issues in children.

It is important to recognize that pediatric mental health care is a critical component of overall health care for children and adolescents. At Rady Children’s, we like to think of the care we provide as “whole child care” — taking care of both the physical health and psychological well-being of the patients we serve. As mental health issues become more prevalent, it is important for health care systems to invest in and prioritize mental health services for young patients. This includes increasing access to care, improving quality and coordination of care and reducing stigma around mental health issues.

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