In recent years, there’s been an increased focus on the mental health of children in the U.S. Everything from behavioral health software to school district screening initiatives aiming to better provide young people with the help they need getting through difficult times or overcoming serious psychiatric illnesses.
A recent study from researchers at Columbia University and the New York State Psychiatric Institute indicated that there has been a significant change in how we view and diagnose mental illness now, especially in children.
The study, which appears in the Journal of the American Medical Association, compared national survey data from ’95 to 2010 for kids, teens and adults. It found that individuals younger than age 20 who visited the doctor in 2010 were twice as likely to be diagnosed with a mental disorder compared to 1995. Diagnoses included attention-defecit/hyperactivity, behavioral, anxiety, mood and developmental disorders, according to The Boston Globe, covering the study results.
The good with the bad
While the Globe saw this as a greater likelihood of children receiving mental health care, there was some contention about the study. For instance, Brookhaven Hospital in Tulsa, Okla. – a leader in behavioral health, chemical dependency and neurological disorders – confirmed that Americans were paying more attention to mental health problems in children, but noted that adults don’t seem to have the same degree of improvement. They saw only a five percent increase rise – only one-tenth of the increase for people under 20. Furthermore, Brookhaven found the study’s data concerning medication of children potentially troubling.
“On the one hand kids who needed treatment are now getting treatment and benefiting from it,” study leader Mark Olfson, M.D. a professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University in New York. “On the other hand, there’s a large increase in prescription of stimulants for adolescents, which is potentially problematic.”
Olfson pointed to non-medical use of prescription drugs, specifically on college campuses, as the potential fallout of over-medication. He stressed that caution should be exercised with regard to the prescription of stimulants.
The researchers noted that while the rate of prescribed medication for mental health issues has grown significantly – both adults and children were about twice as likely to be medicated by 2010 than in 1995 – it was generally pediatricians and primary care physicians that were prescribing, not psychiatrists.
“Pediatricians are becoming increasingly willing to treat psychiatric issues such as attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, anxiety and mood disorders,” according to Olfson.
A better coordinated health care platform
While the trend toward increased rates of treatment are good, the findings concerning medication raise a few red flags. While medication is an important part of treatment for mental illness, it’s essential that when multiple health professionals work to treat a single individual they remain coordinated. Coordinated care software and other recent health information technology developments have made it easier for circles of care – including everyone from social workers to psychiatrists, primary care doctors and pharmacists – to stay abreast of patient health and treatment. A basic EHR includes medication lists, which allows doctors to track how and what drugs a patient is currently taking.
Generally speaking, a tighter mental health net is important. It can help catch those individuals who would otherwise slip through the cracks and not receive the help they need. But every link in that net must be secured to the one next to it. If there’s a hole or a tear – a breakdown in communication between health care providers – then the net itself is no longer useful.