Study: D.C. mental health system failing city's youth

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Local,DC,Eric P. Newcomer,Vincent Gray

Three-quarters of youth referred for mental health services in the District don't receive help within one week, as the law requires, a new study has found.

Less than 50 percent of children with mental health issues are even seen within a month, according to a report by the Children's Law Center.

That report, released Thursday, says "not much progress has been made over the last year in improving the timeliness or quality of service delivery."

Children's advocates say those delays are due, in part, to an unwieldy government bureaucracy and a shortage of mental health providers.

Source: Children's Law Center

By the numbers
> 26 percent of children (819) met with a medical practitioner within a week of being referred to the city
> 49 percent of children (1,524) met with a medical practitioner within a month
> 3,121 children were referred to mental health services in a period including fiscal year 2011 and the start of fiscal year 2012

According to the report, of the 3,121 children referred for mental health services, 819 met with a mental health provider in a week and 1,524 met with someone within 30 days.

What happens when youth with issues ranging from extreme behavior problems to bipolar disorder don't receive the help they need?

"They're going to act out, and when they act out they're going to get suspended from school, they're going to get arrested," said Shannon Hall, executive director of the D.C. Behavioral Health Association. "You're going to have to deal with those [issues] rather than the underlying mental health condition."

When teachers, doctors and others refer children for the city's mental health services, District regulations dictate that they see someone within a week. City officials readily admit they're missing the mark.

"We know it. We're working on it. We're going to continue to address it and show improvement," Stephen Baron, the director of the Department of Mental Health, told The Washington Examiner after an event Thursday to mark the District's Mental Health Awareness Day.

Baron appeared alongside Mayor Vincent Gray at Friendship Public Charter School, where the mayor issued a proclamation and talked to the school children briefly about suicide. It was part of more than a dozen mental health awareness events taking place at schools around the District.

But when it came to addressing the low share of children who receive speedy mental health service in line with the District's own mandate, administration officials did not offer specific targets to improve the number of children who receive help in a timely manner.

There are several reasons for the delays, children's advocates say.

For one, mental health professionals, including psychiatrists, are paid much less than family doctors, reducing the incentives for practitioners to work in D.C.

Furthermore, advocates say getting the proper credentials to practice in the District can be unnecessarily onerous.

"It is a byzantine labyrinth of paperwork to provide mental health services to children in the District, and many mental health providers tell us they'll practice in Maryland and Virginia because of the complexity," said Judith Sandalow, executive director of the Children's Law Center.

enewcomer@washingtonexaminer.com

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