Addressing the evolving landscape of child and family behavioral health

On January 5, I participated in a panel discussion at the State of Reform Conference in Seattle, Washington. Our subject, “Child & Family Behavioral Health: An Evolving Landscape,” is one that’s top of mind for many of us right now, and for good reason.

In the past two years, the behavioral health care landscape shifted at a rate that challenged many communities. From 2019 to 2021, for youth ages 12 to 17, visits to emergency departments for suspected suicide attempts increased 4% for males and 51% for females.1 Yet, 70% of American counties don’t have a child psychiatrist within the county health system.2 Although the need for specific behavioral care for at-risk youth has increased dramatically, the ability to provide that care is often insufficient at the county level.

Build resources for an entire spectrum of needs

How can we improve our behavioral health care systems to benefit young people? The panel offered the following actions to help youth at every point of need:

  • Develop and implement an accessible and effective behavioral health system of care to meet needs at every level, from prevention to intensive services.
  • Increase the probability of positive outcomes by delivering services in the context of families, schools and communities that support youth, with solutions tailored to meet individual needs.
  • Use preclinical supports and evidence-based practices to scale resources across a full range of providers.
  • Build public and private partnerships that support youth and families.
  • Fund universal access to prevention and early intervention programs so that behavioral health needs can be identified and met earlier.
  • Address the deficit of qualified child psychiatrists in county health systems across the country. 

Case study: Clallam County mobile health clinic

Clallam County in Washington is already taking action to increase access to behavioral health services at the county level by bringing this care to youth and families at schools.  

With support from the United Health Foundation, North Olympic Healthcare Network, a Federally Qualified Health Center serving Clallam County, Washington, partnered with the Port Angeles School District to create a mobile health clinic that serves the community's 3,000 K-12 students. The unit visits all five elementary schools in the district, as well as Stevens Middle School, Port Angeles High School and Lincoln High School. It’s also available to students who attend school online.

The mobile clinic integrates behavioral and primary health care. A small room at the front serves as a confidential place for clinical social workers and mental health counselors to offer behavioral health support and education to students and their families.

The partnership demonstrates the power of public-private partnerships to improve behavioral health care and to support a broad range of needs.

Better behavioral health support for youth and families

We know that the behavioral health care landscape for youth has radically shifted. To stem the upward trajectory in youth emergency visits due to behavioral crisis, we need to evolve our systems. Behavioral health needs must be met earlier, focusing on prevention and intervention at all levels by offering support through families, schools and communities.

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