NJ Expands Program for Children with Mental Health Issues

By Brenda Flanagan

Imagine your kid’s not behaving like other students. Your child yells and fights and bites. The teacher’s at wit’s end, but you’ve been waiting weeks to see the child psychiatrist.

“You’re getting calls from the school every day, and you’re experiencing things at home every day. You know you can’t wait three, four, five, six months in order to get those needs met,” said Diana Autin, executive co-director of the Statewide Parent Advocacy Network, Inc.

“There are too few child psychiatrists in the state of New Jersey to begin with, in the country, right?” said Dr. Gary Rosenberg, associate medical director at Optum.

Experts talked about meeting that critical need with a new, collaborative program: it lets parents take kids in emotional crisis to their pediatrician who can call a participating psychiatrist who’s standing by.

“They can pick up the phone and within 30 minutes get a return phone call from a child and adolescent psychiatrist to help talk through options and whether this is a child whose care could easily be managed,” said American Academy of Pediatrics Executive Director Fran Gallagher.

Thirty-four states now treat kids with the collaborative model, because overwhelmed medical systems struggled to meet a burgeoning need. The National Institutes of Health estimates 30 percent of children walking into pediatric practices have mental health issues. The median age of onset for anxiety disorders is 6. It’s 11 for behavior disorders.

“We’ve lost children as young as 6 and 7 to suicide,” said Kurt Baker.

Baker’s 19-year-old son, Kenny, committed suicide. Baker supports this collaborative program — says it’s cost-effective, too.

“If you get to these children younger, you may find some treatments that are actually far less expensive than the further treatment when they’re in a rehab facility or a long-term care facility,” Baker said.

“Government has a role. And its role is funding programs like this to ensure our children are taken care of and not ignored to the point where you have young people walking into schools and shooting them up, or committing suicide,” said Senate President Steve Sweeney.

Lawmakers put $2.4 million into this year’s budget to expand the program, which currently operates out of hubs where pediatric practices that opt in get additional, specialized training in kids’ psychiatric disorders.

“Doesn’t matter what insurance you have, or no insurance — blind to insurance coverage or lack thereof,” Rosenberg said.

“To date, 85 practices have signed up, so it’s a real need. You’re talking about access and reach for hundreds and thousands of families just in those counties alone,” Gallagher said.

Right now, only two so-called hubs offer integrated pediatric and psychiatric care for kids. They’re located in Camden and Monmouth counties. But with this funding, organizers are hoping to open more.