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Why Virginia families are waiting weeks for mental health support

Doctor: 'We have children who are suffering'
Am I Okay?
Posted at 3:23 PM, May 21, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-21 18:01:29-04

RICHMOND, Va. -- The Medical Society of Virginia Foundation is launching a new statewide initiative to help address a shortage of mental health professionals, particularly for children and teenagers, as mental health issue have been exacerbated by the pandemic.

Dr. Sandy Chung, the medical director for the Virginia Mental Health Access Program (VMAP), said the agency has a four-tiered approach to address the dual problem of increasing mental health issues and not enough professionals to treat them.

Chung said one in five children suffer from a diagnosable mental health condition, but noted that the number increased during the pandemic.

"88% of Virginia pediatrician surveyed said that they saw an increase in the number of children who had these conditions and needed care," Chung said.

Chung said Virginia ranked 41st in the country in a 2019 survey for having professionals to treat these patients, with only 13 child or adolescent psychiatrists for every 100,000 kids.

"We have children who are suffering, we have families who are waiting four to six weeks to get care for mental health conditions," Chung said.

Chung noted that while more professionals is the best solution, not enough people are graduating in those fields, so VMAP looks to make best use of the resources that do exist.

The program, which has run the last few years in parts of Virginia, is now statewide after an increase in funding in the last budget.

Chung said the first pillar of the program is to educate primary care providers.

"Instead of meaning necessarily to refer you to child psychiatrists, because there are so few child psychiatrists in the region, we can teach your primary care provider to learn how to manage some of the conditions," Chung explained.

The second pillar is helping patients' families navigate mental health services in their area.

The third is expanding a consult line for providers, which will now operate 40 hours per week and look to connect providers within 30 minutes.

"The pediatrician, family medicine physician, nurse practitioner and PA can reach out and talk to the child psychiatrists to get assistance," Chung said.

Finally, Chung said that likely next year the agency will launch a fourth pillar to augment the consult line and offer telehealth options as mental health conditions lend themselves to that type of service.

"Most of the treatment is through talking and counseling and screening," Chung said.