Mental-health treatment in America has plenty of room for improvement. Depression, in particular, is underdiagnosed and undertreated.
The American Academy of Pediatrics took a big step in February to address one deficit — early identification of depression in adolescents. The group called for every child to be screened for depression every year, starting at age 12.
This may well catch more kids who are symptomatic, and catch them earlier. However, once you have a diagnosis in hand — then what?
Then teens and their parents will face a new problem: getting treatment. Finding a provider who takes your insurance, who has availability, who is not too far away, who has after-school hours and whom your kid clicks with is no easy task.
Kate — a Washington state mother who, like other parents in this column, insisted on being identified by first name only to protect their families’ privacy — was grateful that her family’s primary-care provider prescribed antidepressants when her 16-year-old daughter asked for help. She also knew that her child, who was diagnosed with severe depression and suicidal ideation, should see a specialist. In her town, there were two adolescent psychiatrists who took private insurance; however, they had waiting lists of 10 and 12 months.
A Chicago mother had trouble finding a therapist who took Medicaid for her child who was depressed and cutting herself. “We spent a lot of time working with random therapists who allowed us to pay out of pocket,” she wrote in an email. “These people were good, but none were psychiatrists, [so they] couldn’t prescribe meds.”
Becky in Connecticut adds another layer to the challenge: “Trying to choose a therapist from a website that gives minimal info, looking for ‘teens,’ ‘depression,’ and ‘LGBTQ’ in the list of specialties and hoping that’s enough to make a good match.”
These examples represent a too-common story line, which was substantiated by a 2017 study. Harvard researchers called 601 pediatricians and 312 child psychiatrists in five cities, posing as parents of a 12-year-old child with depression. Appointments were scheduled with 40 percent of the pediatricians and 17 percent of the child psychiatrists. Long wait times were the good outcomes. Most psychiatry practices were not accepting new patients or had incorrectly listed phone numbers.
“Mental-health care is not highly valued,” says Paul Gionfriddo, president and CEO of Mental Health America, a…