In last week’s column, I wrote about the crisis in county jails resulting from community members with untreated mental health disorders coming into contact with law enforcement. This week’s focus is the crisis in children’s mental health.
The suicide rate among girls in the United States reached a record high in 2015, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), and has doubled since 2007. The suicide rate for young girls, ages 10-14, increased 300 percent. Suicide is the third leading cause of death for teens and young adults ages 15-24. In fact, more children and young adults die from suicide than from all natural causes combined.
Twenty percent of children and teens in our country have a mental health disorder. In Blanco County, this equals 433 children.
The most common children’s mental health disorders are anxiety disorders, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), mood disorders such as depression, and psychotic disorders such as schizophrenia. These are medical conditions that require treatment from doctors. Children with mental health disorders face daunting challenges in obtaining treatment, not the least of which is the judgment of being a bad kid.
Children, their families and our state pay the price. A child with an untreated mental health condition may self-medicate with alcohol or drugs or engage in high-risk activities, putting them at risk for academic failure and involvement with the juvenile justice system. Fifty percent drop out of high school. Seventy percent of children in the juvenile justice system have a mental health disorder.
Pediatricians play an important role in the solution because early diagnosis and treatment is key to a positive outcome. Mental health screenings must take place at regular intervals during childhood, just like hearing and vision screenings. Unfortunately, there is no pediatrician and only one general practitioner in Blanco County.
There is a shortage of doctors in general practice and pediatrics in rural Texas. We rank 47th in the nation for having enough primary care physicians for our population.
The Texas Medical Association recommends three steps to alleviate this crisis. First, provide a path for doctors who are immigrants and licensed in other countries to practice in Texas. Second, allow independent practice for nurse practitioners and offer incentives, such as student loan forgiveness, to practice in rural areas. Third, create incentives for medical schools to fund additional residency positions so all medical school graduates can continue on the path to becoming doctors.
It takes government intervention to make these steps happen. It is our shared responsibility to ensure that children get the medical care they need. It is an appropriate function of government to address community problems with a broad impact.
Current state leadership is more concerned about niche issues that appeal to the Republican base than in finding real solutions to complex issues. Ask the candidates in the November election about these issues. Vote for those who understand these problems and offer solutions, not those that resort to name-calling and finger-pointing. Our children deserve better.