Half of Children Who Need Mental Health Care Don’t Get It

 ADHD Weekly, March 7, 2019

Did you know that about one child out of every six is coping with a mental health condition? Unfortunately, of these children, only half receive treatment. For children diagnosed with ADHD, nearly one quarter don’t receive any treatment for the disorder.

Early intervention when a child is struggling with a mental health condition, including ADHD, can make a difference in the course of a child’s life. But often a lack of access to mental health care or persisting stigma can prevent parents from finding help for their children, according to a new study.

Barriers to treatment for children

Daniel G. Whitney, PhD, and Mark D. Peterson, PhD, of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor reviewed the data from the 2016 National Survey of Children’s Health. Of the 46.6 million children in the survey, 7.7 million had a mental health condition—and only half of those children and teens had received treatment or counseling in the previous 12 months. Dr. Peterson said he was surprised to find the number of untreated children so high.

“We did not expect these findings to be this extreme,” he says. Many things can contribute to the number of children left untreated, he said, including cost of treatment, location and the number of providers available, parents’ understanding of the condition, and family concerns regarding mental treatment. These things are all part of “a much larger problem,” he says, “and the study highlights the need for better care for kids.”

Many families have to contend with worry over how others perceive them regarding ADHD treatment. Others are not ready to acknowledge their child is struggling with ADHD or conditions. Many teenagers are resistant to undertaking treatment.

“Parents often do not wish to accept the diagnosis in their child,” says Dr. Victor Fornari, director of child and adolescent psychiatry at Cohen Children’s Medical Center in New Hyde Park, New York. “Denial is a powerful force. Youth themselves often refuse the care, and do not accept the diagnosis or the treatment.”

Lack of coverage for mental health

The study also showed that in many families insurance coverage for mental health care is a challenge. Even for families with good coverage for counseling, therapy, or behavioral treatment and parent training, finding a provider—or one who takes their health care plan—can be difficult or impossible. Some families live in states where there are not enough providers for children’s mental health care or parent and family training programs, regardless of insurance plans.

“There is a wide variability on what is covered, how much is covered, and people are concerned. Mental health treatment is not usually a once-every-couple-months type of environment,” says Barbara Robles-Ramamurthy, MD, child and adolescent psychiatrist at the Long School of Medicine at UT Health San Antonio. “For families struggling to make ends meet, the expenses can pose a real challenge.”

“Lack of health care coverage also prevents families from seeking care, although there are mental health clinics throughout the country that provide mental health care regardless of ability to pay,” Dr. Fornari adds.

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