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Commission Shines Light on Inadequate Mental Health Resources for Children in Nine-County Region

Jan 28, 2016

Credit freeimages.com/Penny Matthews

In any given year, one in five children and adolescents will experience a mental disorder, and the prevalence of these illnesses appears to be increasing. Of those who are diagnosed, only 20 percent will be seen by a mental health provider. 

The Commission on Children's Behavioral Health in the Finger Lakes brought together more than 150 mental health specialists as well as representatives from the local business, legal, and education systems Thursday in Rochester to highlight the urgency of the problem. 

Michael Scharf, M.D., chief of Child Psychiatry at the University of Rochester Medical Center, says local mental health care is lacking in both quantity and quality.      

"You don't have to go farther than to talk to a family who's been trying to get access to a child psychiatrist in town. It takes an average of twelve weeks to connect." Dr.Scharf was the project leader for the commission, whose report "Crisis in Care" found that prevention efforts are virtually non-existent at regional elementary and secondary schools, child care, or community resource settings.  

Dr. Scharf says agencies and providers often collaborate, but a tangle of funding streams and state and federal regulations sometimes create silos of service that fail to provide consistent care for patients who suffer from depression, ADHD, anxiety disorders, obsessive compulsive disorder and other conditions. The report calls the shortage of local mental health practitioners trained to adequately address the needs of children and adolescents "staggering," with inadequate reimbursement a key contributor to the problem.

The prevalence of mental and behavioral disorders reaches beyond socioeconomic and geographic boundaries, according to Scharf, but he said neighborhoods with high rates of violence have an even greater percentage of young people with these illnesses. Poverty is another contributing factor, but the problem is not only found the city of Rochester. The report notes that the Rochester Area Community Foundation found that 40 percent of Monroe County families are living in poverty.

The commission is recommending a special task force to include educators, human service providers, court personnel, major health care providers, payors and foundations, and others to explore the problem. The report calls for a focus on prevention starting at preschool through age 10 and response efforts for children and adolescents of all ages. It also calls for more cultural diversity in the mental health workforce.