A fruitless search for help for children with depression

Harvard researchers have confirmed what just about any parent of a child with mental health issues can tell you: Getting help is nearly impossible.

The researchers called 913 doctors in Minneapolis, Boston, Chapel Hill, N.C., Houston, and Seattle and posed as parents of a 12-year-old showing signs of depression.

While they were able to get an appointment with a pediatrician less than half the time — after two tries — they could get to see a psychiatrist only 17 percent of the time, the Boston Globe reports.

Those who are fighting mightily to stem the second leading cause of death in Minnesota — suicide — often assure us that help is available. But the reality is for most people, it’s not.

For one thing, the researchers said, there’s a critical shortage of child psychologists, so many are not taking new patients or there’s a long waiting list to get an appointment.

The good news — if it can be considered good news — is people in the Twin Cities were able to get an appointment with a pediatrician or child psychologist in about two weeks, on average. Only Chapel Hill (12 days) showed better results.

But for those on Medicaid, the odds are staggering. People on Medicaid had only a 22 percent chance of getting an appointment.

“In some cases, kids will hold on and be OK until they get to that first appointment,’’ said Dr. J. Wesley Boyd, a co-author of the study. “In other cases, a crisis will arise in the meantime and they will end up in the emergency room.’’

The researchers chose pediatricians because they are increasingly becoming the frontline resource for mental health issues.

They also found that many of the lists of psychiatrists and doctors that insurance companies provide are “ghosts lists.” In 24 percent of the calls made to child psychiatrists, the doctor no longer worked there, the receptionist had never heard of the doctor, or it was otherwise the wrong number, the newspaper reports.

Asked by the Globe what parents trying to find a child psychiatrist should do, Boyd said “you just have to be dramatically persistent.’’

  • chlost

    Oh, don’t get me started. This is my world. Children and families in crisis and nowhere to obtain services. And then people wonder why the suicide rate is what it is, why the chemical abuse issues are what they are, and why kids are not “behaving” in school. It is a vicious, evil cycle, and children are the victims.

  • Unfortunately, health care is fragmented by tradition. Somehow mental health is supposed to be disconnected for “regular healthcare” as is dentistry and to a lesser extent vision care. If we were to assess health rationally, there would be no way to build such silos – everything is connected and interdependent.

  • Jason Mock

    Good thing everyone has access to healthcare. I mean, it may not be convenient, affordable, or applicable to your condition, but it’s accessible! Mental health issue in Rural Minnesota? You have ‘Access’! It’s 3 hours away, not covered by your insurer, and not experienced with your condition, but that’s another conversation. At least not having access isn’t a problem.

    • I suppose, technically, as soon as the child psychologist’s office picks up the phone (before they tell you they’re not taking new patients), that qualifies as “access.”

      • Jason Mock

        Agreed. I have “access” to Hundreds of thousands of dollars, but I still don’t think my bank is just going to let me walk out the door with it…

  • Michael

    This doesn’t even cover the hospitals. We do have two emergency rooms that take Children’s Mental Health cases but you have to already be in the community to know where they are in the list of many hospital’s we already have, if they have beds, and if the children are admitted.

    Last week on Thursday was Children’s Mental Health day at the State Capital and the people who were there were bring up these issues as major concerns for Families.

    The state reps and senator’s are including money for mental health in the budget, but calls from constituents always help, and later letters. If you would like to keep an eye on this NAMI-MN keeps track.

  • Laurie K.

    “You have to be dramatically persistent” – as you struggle to make sure that your child does not harm themselves. I had no time to be “dramatically persistent” – my time was spent making sure that my child was not making a plan for suicide or self-harming. And when you finally, after months of being on a waiting list, get in to see a physiatrist, your child is told not to get too comfortable with the doctor because he is retiring within a month and a replacement has not been found yet. Triage, at best, is what I found for mental health care available for my child.

  • Andy K.

    I work as a therapist in private practice and for a county mental health agency as a children’s mental health social worker. One of the big issues that’s not being discussed is how many therapists in the twin cities metro area would like to be in network with insurance companies, but are denied contracts because “networks are full”. I have a colleague who has been trying to get a contract with Health Partners to be an in-network provider. She has been denied a contract for the past 15 years. There are plenty of therapists and providers who would love to work, but the access problem goes both ways.

    • This is why, as I mentioned in another post, the focus on removing a perceived stigma is preventing us from focusing on systemic problems. In many cases, these campaigns are funded by the organizations who would otherwise be cited for contributing to the problem.