More than 40,000 children have lost a parent due to COVID-19. Black children, who constitute 14% of children in the US, are 20% of those who have lost a parent. Chances are good, then, that some of your patients have been through one of the most significant losses they will experience in their whole lives. The support they receive now to grieve in a healthy way can make the difference between their ability to thrive and their descent into adverse outcomes ranging from school failure to death by suicide.
“Parents who are going through a divorce really want to believe their children are OK,” said Lisa Blum, PsyD, a licensed clinical therapist on the faculty of The REACH Institute’s CATIE program. “They’re terrified that they’re hurting their kids. So if Sally is doing her homework and Johnny isn’t acting out, the parents think, ‘Whew, good, they’re fine!’ But often they’re not fine.” Though divorce rates in the US have been declining for years – including, according to early reports, during 2020 – the rates are still high. Each divorce or separation brings loss, disruption, and pain to any children involved.
If you’re like most pediatric primary care providers (PCPs), you’ve seen an increase in child mental health issues due to COVID. Research shows that the pandemic, with its consequent disruption and isolation, has increased adolescents’ risk of trauma, depression, and anxiety. Families are dealing with grief, the anxiety of whatever “school” means this week or this month, and, in many cases, loss of income. Families of color and low-income families have been hardest hit by the pandemic itself, by the economic and social fallout, and by the attendant impairment of mental health. And now come the holidays.
Once pediatric primary care providers (PCPs) recognize the importance of having conversations about race with their patients and families, the next question is how to begin.
“The first thing clinicians need to know about racism and discrimination is how important it is to talk about it.” Open, honest, and effective conversations about race and racism are crucial to young people’s mental health.
As suicidality among adolescents generally has declined in the past three decades, suicide attempts among Black adolescents have risen, according to a November 2019 article in Pediatrics. A report to the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) says that rates of suicide death have risen more for Black youth than for any other racial or ethnic group. A growing concern is that Black youth are less likely to report suicidal thoughts but more likely to attempt suicide; Black males are more likely to suffer injury or death as a result. Suicidality is also increasing among younger children. The reasons for these changes are not clear. However, the risk factors for suicidality and underlying mental health conditions among Black children and youth are myriad.
In treating young patients who have chronic physical conditions, health care professionals focus — as they must — on alleviating the physical suffering caused by the disease. However, as a graduate of the REACH course Patient-Centered Mental Health in Pediatric Primary Care, you know the importance of supporting the mental and emotional health of young patients and their caregivers. A new article in Pediatrics highlights the importance of mental health care for families dealing with chronic illness.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has released a new policy and an accompanying technical report on mental health competencies for pediatric clinicians. REACH faculty member Cori Green, MD, MS, is a lead author of both documents. We asked Dr. Green, director of behavioral health education and integration at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City, what the AAP policy and technical report mean for alumni of the REACH program Patient-Centered Mental Health in Pediatric Primary Care. “I hope they’ll be excited to see that what is being endorsed by AAP is essentially what they were taught in their REACH training,” Dr. Green said. In the technical report, the REACH course is described as a promising practice in continuing medical education.
“When it comes to school refusal, getting all the adults on the same page is the bottom line,” said James Wallace, MD, a REACH faculty member. “Until you have that, you have nothing.” Dr. Wallace, who teaches child psychiatry at the University of Rochester (New York) Medical Center School of Medicine and Dentistry, described an approach to school refusal that unites primary care providers, schools, and mental health professionals in helping families make choices that support regular school attendance. “An evidence-based approach to school refusal, and the anxiety or depression that usually underlie it, includes cognitive behavior therapy and sometimes medication,” said Dr. Wallace. “But there’s a third piece: getting all of the adults involved, including the parents, to address the social-emotional components of school attendance in a consistent way.”
According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 92% of public schools had formal active shooter plans in 2016, and 96% conducted lockdown drills. These measures are intended to keep children safe, but they may do as much harm as good. The title of a September 4 New York Times article sums it up: “When Active Shooter Drills Scare the Children They Hope to Protect.” We asked REACH faculty member Jasmine Reese, MD, MPH, about how students react to active shooter drills and what pediatric primary care providers (PCPs) can do. Dr. Reese is Director of the Adolescent and Young Adult Specialty Clinic at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg, Florida. “We have yet to see data on whether these drills are causing more anxiety and other mental health issues among students,” said Dr. Reese. “But it seems clear in practice that they can either cause anxiety and depression or exacerbate existing issues.”
“Going to college is exciting, but students need to know that this experience, though positive, may also be stressful,” said REACH faculty member Elena Man, MD. Dr. Man recommends resources and strategies that pediatric primary care clinicians can use to prepare patients for this significant transition to a new environment for learning, living, and friendships.
“It’s not just that we’re more aware of adolescent suicide,” said Michael Scharf, MD, chief of child and adolescent psychiatry at the University of Rochester Medical Center and a REACH faculty member. “The rate really is going up. Teen suicide is still rare, but it’s increasing.” Primary care providers (PCPs) can help teens at risk of suicide, first of all, by being willing to talk about it. “Some people think that asking about suicidal ideation makes the kid more likely to act,” said Dr. Scharf. “But evidence shows that asking either has no impact or has a relieving effect; it frees the patient to talk about the issue.” “You need to think ahead of time of what to ask and how, so you feel comfortable,” said Dr. Scharf. “You need a go-to way to assess risk and how likely the kid is to follow through.” (See Resources below.) The assessment results can range from “nothing to do here” to “send this kid to the emergency department.” “The tricky part,” Dr. Scharf said, “is what to do in between.”
Some pediatric primary care providers (PCPs) are nervous about providing mental health services because they are not sure they can be paid. However much they may want to treat patients with mental health disorders, they can’t afford to practice for free! Evaluation and management of mental health conditions is time-intensive. PCPs wonder, “How can I spend 90 minutes doing intake?” Those who work in large healthcare systems worry about the WRVUs (work relative value units) by which their productivity is judged. Providers in small practices worry about getting paid for visits that involve primarily talk. “Primary care providers absolutely can be paid for mental health care,” said Dr. Eugene Hershorin, a coding expert in the Pediatric Department in the University of Miami Health System and a REACH Institute faculty member.
“Pediatric primary care providers can have a big impact on child mental health simply because we see children early and often,” said Dana Kornfeld, MD, REACH board member and associate clinical professor of pediatrics at George Washington School of Medicine. Dr. Kornfeld, who practices at Pediatric Care Center in Bethesda, MD, endorses the use of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) techniques in primary care to nip potentially crippling anxiety in the bud.
Alana, age 17, comes into your office complaining that she can’t sleep at night and struggles to stay awake during school. If she can, she sleeps until noon or later on weekends. “Diagnosis of sleep disorders is often easier with teens than with younger children, as long as you ask the right questions,” said Robert Kowatch, MD, a REACH faculty member who is a pediatric sleep expert at Ohio State University Medical Center/Nationwide Children’s Hospital.
Alana, age 17, comes in complaining that she is tired all the time and struggles to stay awake during school. Or perhaps it’s six-year-old Miko, whose mother tells you that Miko avoids going to bed and often gets up in the middle of the night. Miko says he doesn’t feel sleepy, but his teachers say he is often inattentive and sometimes quarrelsome. The most common sleep problems among young patients are these and other forms of insomnia or insufficient sleep, according to REACH faculty member Robert Kowatch, MD …
Ryan, age 12, has missed almost three weeks of school so far. He complains of nausea and headache most school days and has to be cajoled into getting out of bed, but his mother says he is fine on weekends. The mother, who is eight months pregnant, is frantic; she can’t afford to take any more time off work before she delivers. School refusal can have serious consequences. On the short term, the child falls behind academically, both the child and the family experience disruption and distress, and there can be legal and financial ramifications. Long-term consequences for school refusers include violent behavior, school dropout, early marriage, and unemployment. “The main goal of treatment is to get the child back to school as soon as possible,” says Lisa Hunter Romanelli, PhD, REACH Institute CEO and clinical psychologist. “Being absent from school is highly reinforcing.” Like many school refusers, Ryan presents somatic complaints. After you rule out physiological causes– not only for these complaints but also for any underlying conditions that can produce depression or anxiety–what’s next?
As you’ve dealt with back-to-school (and back-to-sports) visits, you probably have been challenged by the gap between what’s needed and what’s practical. This visit may be the only time you see this child this year. You know that emotional and mental health is as important as physical health. But you have only so much time for each check-up. Screening tools are a big help…
“We have kids who come in here on three, four different medications,” says Dr. Elizabeth Wallis, MD, “and we don’t know why. We don’t know what data were used to make those decisions.” Dr. Wallis, director of the Foster Care Support Clinic (FCSC) of the Medical University of South Carolina and a REACH faculty member, was expressing just one of the challenges of treating children and youth in the foster care system.
“For these straightforward cases, when you can identify uncomplicated ADHD in patients without co-occuring depression or anxiety – well, everyone in primary care should be able to do this.”
In the absence of a single child and adolescent psychiatrist anywhere in Cape May County, New Jersey, The REACH Institute training enabled Rainbow Pediatrics to help families who had nowhere else to turn.
“REACH offered a safe environment to learn and share in It was, and continues to be, a supportive, invigorating process! It was motivating and has increased my confidence in assessment, diagnosis of mental health cases in my day to day life and practice.”