North Texas kids need mental health support. A new initiative is closing the gaps
This story discusses mental health and data related to suicide. For resources and support, call 988 to reach the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, or text HOME to 741741 to connect to the Crisis Text Line.
The pediatric mental health initiative launched in 2022 to train primary care doctors to assess anxiety, depression and stress in the kids they treat. Sabrina Browne, an assistant professor of psychiatry at UT Southwestern who also works in the behavioral health program at Children’s Health, headed up the initiative.
“Pediatricians and others in pediatric primary care are in such a great position to have those conversations with families and de-stigmatize mental health,” Browne said. “This is something we want to address as part of your everyday healthcare.”
The catalyst for this pediatric consultation model was in 2020, with the state’s Child Psychiatric Access Network (CPAN). Browne answered questions from doctors all over Texas who were looking for help diagnosing, treating and referring patients to psychiatry and psychology services.
“We had an epidemic in children’s mental health before the pandemic, but once the pandemic hit, it just really opened up the floodgates,” Browne said. “There’s just not enough child psychiatrists out there.”
Lack of mental health care services in Texas
The nonprofit Mental Health America ranks Texas among the 11 states in the country where youth have higher rates of mental health issues and less access to care.
According to data from the federal Health Resources & Services Administration, more than 130 of Texas’ 254 counties are designated as mental health professional shortage areas. That means people in more than 50% of Texas counties may not be able to find a mental health care provider when they need it.
And Browne said mental health issues have been building for kids since 2020. According to reports from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, emergency department visits “increased for self-harm, drug poisoning, and psychosocial concerns” for kids ages 5-17 throughout the pandemic, in comparison to 2019.
Teen girls were especially impacted: They had emergency visits for suicide attempts 50% more in 2021 than in the same time period in 2019.
Over the past year, Browne and her colleague, Children’s Health pediatrician Mia Best, have trained 75 health professionals in Dallas-Fort Worth through online modules and in-person case study discussions.
“One of my passions and main goals with this initiative is bringing mental health back into the idea of overall health and wellbeing,” Browne said. “We’ve done a disservice in trying to separate out physical from mental health, because the two are so intertwined.”
Best said she knows how overwhelmed pediatricians can get, and how important it is to carve out a space for learning, growth and community-building.
“We’re really talking about children’s lives and their emotions,” Best said. “We also are going through things ourselves as providers. It’s really hard because we put our heart and soul into treating these kids and making sure their lives are better. When sometimes it doesn’t go as planned, how are we coping with that?”
Best said integrating care helps providers, patients, and patient’s families, especially when treating issues of generational trauma and social determinants of health.
Both she and Browne are recruiting more health providers to participate in the initiative, which runs quarterly, and hope to expand the program beyond Dallas-Fort Worth in the coming years.
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