Children are disproportionately affected by poverty in the United States: Although they make up less than one-quarter of the entire population, about one-third of people living in poverty are kids. Lack of economic resources in childhood can have lifelong effects, including increasing the chances of experiencing a variety of mental health issues.
What’s more, although kids living in low socioeconomic settings are more likely to need mental health care, studies show that they are less likely to receive it, says Children’s National Health System Psychologist Stacy Hodgkinson, Ph.D. Estimates indicate that fewer than 15 percent of children living in poverty who need mental health care receive any services, and even fewer get comprehensive treatment.
The reasons for this disparity are multifold, Hodgkinson explains. One reason is simply insufficient numbers of trained mental health care providers to meet demand, particularly in low-income communities. Another is an inability to access available services —parents in low-paying jobs may not be able to take time off to take their children to appointments or even afford bus fare to reach a clinic. Others are afraid of the stigma that might surround being treated for a mental health issue. In her role as the director of mental health and research for the Generations Program, a support service for teen parents and their children, Hodgkinson says she has seen each of these scenarios in play.
However, she adds, over the past several years, she and Children’s National colleagues have been implementing a new strategy to increase mental health care access: Integrating these services with primary care.
“Often times, a family is with a primary care provider throughout a child’s life into adulthood. It’s a natural, familiar setting where people feel comfortable,” Hodgkinson says. “That makes a primary care provider’s office really fertile ground for integrating mental health services.”
Hodgkinson and coauthors point out in a review paper published in the January 2017 issue of Pediatrics that most children see their primary care provider for annual well visits as well as when they are sick — regardless of household income. Those visits provide ample opportunities for parents to bring up other concerns or for providers to implement screening that could lead to a mental health diagnosis. From there, she explains, that provider can offer mental health support and facilitate a connection with a mental health provider who works in the same office or who works in partnership with the primary care office.
In the review, she and colleagues suggest several strategies for making this idea become a reality. The first step, they agree, is education. Beginning with their fundamental training, primary care doctors and mental health providers need to see their roles as conjoined.
“We really need to change the way people think about primary care,” Hodgkinson says. “Disciplines don’t have to be siloed, where primary care providers do their thing here and mental health providers do their thing there. We should be thinking about how we can bring everyone together under one tent.”
Many psychology training programs have primary care integration rotations, she adds, and an increasing number of health systems like Children’s National now have mental health providers working in the same offices as primary care providers.
But not every clinic has the resources to group providers together under a single roof. Even for those offices, Hodgkinson says, primary care doctors need to develop a workflow that streamlines patients who need mental health services to health care professionals who provide it. In some cases, that might mean making the referral call on patients’ behalf to ensure they get through, walking families through the specific information they will need if they make the call on their own and following up to troubleshoot any problems with access.
“We want to close as many gaps as we can to keep families from falling through the cracks,” she says.
Developing an infrastructure that supports this model also can’t be ignored, Hodgkinson points out. Primary care offices might need to determine how to allocate space to mental health providers, hire dedicated workers to improve access and develop new strategies for billing.
None of this will be easy, she adds, but it will be worth it to make sure that more patients receive needed services.
“Even though we have integrated mental health and primary care at Children’s National, it very much remains a work in progress, and we’re continuing to fine-tune this machine to make it work better,” she says. “But if a patient comes to even one appointment that they might not have made it to in the past, that’s an accomplishment.”