Tara Roberts has two children who both struggle with emotional and behavioral challenges. But the single mother says her biggest challenge is finding sufficient help for her youngest, who is now 18.
“He has ADHD, OCD, ODD, generalized anxiety disorder, Tourette’s, migraines, and just recently had a traumatic brain injury,” said Roberts, who lives in Jackson, Mississippi, and works for Families As Allies, an organization that helps parents and caregivers of children with mental health challenges.
Throughout elementary, middle and high school, her son saw a licensed school therapist. But now that he has graduated, that care has dried up. Roberts’ son sees a neurologist, as well as a nurse practitioner at the local mental health clinic, who only has time to meet with him for maybe 10 minutes and isn’t able to do much more than adjust his medication if he needs it.
“One time we had to go the mental health center, and probably about two days before they had to cancel his appointment. I was like, y’all cancelled his appointment, but he is about to be out of medication. What am I supposed to do?” Roberts recalled. “He is not one of those who should be off his medication at any point in time.”
After that incident, she contacted her son’s family doctor to see if he’d be willing to see them every few months to at least try to fill the gaps in his care. But it is not nearly enough.
“It leaves those things that he is struggling with on a daily basis to be suppressed,” Roberts said.
And she and her son are far from alone. A new study published Monday in the journal Pediatrics highlights the urgent, unmet need for more pediatric mental health providers in this country.
Between 2007 to 2016, the number of child psychiatrists in the United States increased by more than 20% — from roughly 6,500 to nearly 8,000, the study found.
But experts say those gains are nowhere close to meeting current needs. It is estimated that 17 million children in the U.S. have a diagnosable psychiatric disorder.
The moderate improvement means that in 2007, there was 1 child psychiatrist for every 12,477 children. By 2016, it was up to 1 child psychiatrist for every 10,256.
“The math doesn’t add up,” said study author Ryan McBain, a health policy researcher with RAND, a nonprofit think tank. “We need more.”
The study also shows there is huge regional variation in the number of providers, suggesting that access to mental health services is dependent on where children happen to live.
Seventy percent of counties in the United States are without a single child psychiatrist. And the shortage is particularly acute in areas with lower income and education levels.
“If you live in a county that is in the top quarter for income, then you’re on average going to have about three to four times as many times child psychiatrists than if you live in the bottom 20%,” McBain explained.
“Those disparities are sort of rolled up at the state level too,” he added. “So if you take a state like Massachusetts, for example, it has roughly the same number of child psychiatrists as Oklahoma, Indiana, Georgia, Mississippi, and Tennessee combined. And that’s despite the fact that those other states have about five times as many children as Massachusetts.”