Mental Health Issues in California Kids Go Largely Untreated

Mental Health Issues in California Kids Go Largely Untreated

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More than 300,000 California children, or 8.5 percent, between the ages of 4 and 11 have mental health needs, yet only a quarter of them receive mental health treatment in a timely fashion, according to a new study by UCLA researchers.

The paradox is that 95 percent of those children have insurance, but there is a range of barriers that are keeping them from getting treatment, notes D. Imelda Padilla-Frausto, the lead author of the UCLA study that was released July 24. One of those barriers could be a shortage of mental health care providers where they live, resulting in long wait times. Another could be limited English language skill, making it difficult for parents to navigate a complex health care system. Only 11 percent of children whose parents were not proficient in English received treatment.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been saying that early childhood intervention is a critical step in reducing the severity of mental health issues in adulthood. Studies have shown that nearly half of all Americans will need mental health treatment some time during their lifetime, with initial symptoms manifesting in childhood or adolescence.

“Without early assessment, you miss warning signs, as well as opportunities to intervene,” Padilla-Frausto said. “Waiting can lead to more serious problems later.”

Emotional and behavioral problems are among the most prevalent chronic health conditions in younger children, noted the researchers, who based their findings on California Health Interview Survey (CHIS) data gathered in 2007 and 2009, the most recent available.

Researchers found that children with parents who had a mental disorder were three times as likely to have mental health needs as children whose parents did not have mental health needs.

While boys were more likely than girls to have mental health needs (11 percent to 6 percent), researchers found that there are some common physical health factors in both sexes that are associated with an increased likelihood of mental health problems. Those factors include having physical health disorders -- for example, children with asthma were twice as likely as children without asthma to have mental health needs. Padilla-Frausto said that because of the links between physical health and mental health, a child should start with having an examination by a physician that should include a mental health screening.

Children living in single-parent households and those living in poverty are more likely to have mental health needs than those living in two-parent, well-to-do households, the researchers found.

While on the face of it, data may suggest that American Indian and Alaska Native children have disproportionately high levels of mental health needs, researchers for this study however say their conclusions may not be truly indicative of the incidence of mental health needs in these communities because of the small sample-size they worked with. But Padilla-Frausto points out that a growing body of research has documented the extent of mental health needs among American Indian and Alaska Native children.

One of the greatest barriers in the way of children getting treatment for mental health disorders is the stigma associated with the illness, Padilla-Frausto noted. This is especially true in immigrant communities. At 7.8 percent, Latino parents are less likely to report that their child has a mental health need than their white counterparts, at 9.7 percent.

One of the ways the stigma factor can be overcome is getting care through patient-centered medical homes that many community clinics are now morphing into. These facilities integrate mental, medical, vision and dental care so patients can seek treatment for a range of disorders under one roof.