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Children's Mental Health Directors Face Challenges, Study Finds

By Marissa Evans, CQ Roll Call

September 22, 2016 -- Children's mental health directors nationwide are having difficulties convincing policymakers to prioritize and fund such care, according to a new Journal of Behavioral Health Services and Research study.

New survey results released Thursday found that funding, departmental organization and work shortages were some of the biggest challenges children's mental health directors face. Authors conducted a survey of 48 directors from 46 states, the District of Columbia, and one U.S. territory. The study was published by the National Council for Behavioral Health.

Lead author Mario Hernandez, chair of the Department of Child and Family Studies for the University of South Florida's Louis de la Parte Florida Mental Health Institute, said in an interview that the most telling part of the survey was that many states did not designate one person to focus on children's mental health. The lack of focus could decrease awareness about the issue.

"If there's nobody paying attention to this then it can really continue to be diminished," Hernandez said. "These are important roles and people in states and they need to be empowered."

Hernandez said the group plans to replicate the study again to allow comparisons in the future. "We hope to do another one and look at it over time," he said.

One of the problems children's mental health directors report is that they are often unable to make their priorities clear to people outside their departments such as legislators, according to the authors. More than 80 percent of directors reported that "a lack of attention, accountability, and funding given to children's mental health services compared to adult services."

Funding for children's mental health is also a problem. Directors complained that they didn't control all of the funds for mental health and said funding should be increased.

Children's mental health directors may have the title but their levels of authoritative powers on their budgets varied, according to the report. The lack of time and resources available for data collection has also been a concern for respondents since without data, "children's mental health agencies will struggle to advocate for continued support and funding."

Besides funding and organizational woes, children's mental health directors are also concerned about the mental health workforce shortage. The report found that directors were concerned about the few state-supported training and technical assistance programs for mental health professionals and the lack of licensed clinicians and child psychiatrists available.

The shortages were also part of problems with access to service that the directors noted in their survey. While the states may have licensed mental health professionals who can work with children, directors in the report pointed out that some of them were unwilling to work with Medicaid and uninsured children.

The group surveyed directors by using the roster for the Children, Youth and Families Division of the National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors.  

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