Pediatric mental health screenings increasing, but need remains

The number of behavioral health screenings for children are increasing year-over-year, but experts said more can be done to catch mental health conditions early on, especially as they pose more of a risk to children during the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to data from the Connecticut Department of Social Services, behavioral health screenings billed to Medicaid for children aged four to 17 went up by 50,000 from 3,697 in 2013 to 53,756 in 2019. Similar screenings for children under the age of three went up from 27,992 to 73,262.

“I wish I could say it’s because of educating practices but the bottom line is those numbers are increasing as time goes on and more resources become available,” said Dr. David Krol, a pediatrician who is also vice president for health initiatives for the Child Health and Development Institute of Connecticut. “We’re seeing more pediatricians doing these screenings.”

Valerie Lepoutre, statewide peer recovery program manager for the National Alliance on Mental Illness’ Connecticut chapter, said screenings and loved ones keeping an eye out for mental illness in children is even more crucial as many experience new levels of stress given the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’re constantly…saying to keep an eye out to how your child is responding and acting during this time and not dismiss it,” Lepoutre said. “We don’t know what the long-term effects will be and it could lead to other mental health challenges. Even if it goes away, it’s better to get help now.”

While behavioral health screenings and mental illness awareness are increasing, the American Academy of Pediatrics reported in a 2017 study that up to 20 percent of children experience a mental health disorder and many remain untreated. Lepoutre said that it can take up to a year for some mental illnesses to be diagnosed.

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