In DC area, schools focus more on mental health for kids and teens

WASHINGTON — A lot of children deal with mental health issues — from ADHD, to depression and learning disabilities.

During May, which is Mental Health Month, there’s renewed focus on an innovative way to get more of these children and teenagers access to care.

The idea is to put mental health centers in schools. The concept has been around for some time, and is now starting to gain traction in the D.C. area.

“The concept is, we really want to see kids in a natural setting,” said Dr. Lisa Cullins, head of outpatient psychiatry at the Children’s National Health System.

She said school is a familiar place for kids, and a clinic on site is a logistical plus for parents.

Cullins has been working with one of the first schools in the area to set up a mental health center on campus. The program at D.C. Prep, a charter school in the nation’s capital, brings in a multidisciplinary team of mental health professionals to provide a wide range of services.

“These include comprehensive assessments, as well as ongoing treatment, which can involve medication management and/or therapy,” Cullins said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that anywhere between 13 and 20 percent of all children and adolescents need mental health services.

About half of all adults with lifelong mental illness are diagnosed before the age of 14.

The Affordable Care Act mandates mental health parity, meaning insurers have to provide coverage. And with more people covered, that means more demand for help.

Cullins said school mental health centers can go a long way to provide access to care — particularly for families who find transportation is a big barrier to treatment.

“Some of my families have to take five buses to come to Children’s Hospital to see me there,” she explained. With kids already at school, it is easy for parents to get them to a clinician on site.

Right now, D.C. charter schools are leading the way when it comes to setting up mental health centers with psychiatric services.

However, all local districts are stepping up their game when it comes to detecting mental and behavioral problems in their student population.

“They are utilizing early identification and intervention,” said Cullins, noting many of the children she sees in her own practice at Children’s were referred by their schools.

D.C. has added extra school mental health professionals to help spot signs of trouble.

Montgomery and Prince George’s counties have in-school health wellness centers that provide some mental health services; in Fairfax, counseling is available through the country’s public school health program.

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