The last few years have been tough on virtually everyone’s mental health, but children seem to have especially suffered. Caregivers report that the need for pediatric mental health services skyrocketed during the pandemic, and demand continues to climb.
In its effort to meet this demand, Indiana University Health Southern Indiana Physicians (SIP) Pediatric Behavioral Health Unit (SBU) is leveraging grants, including money from IU Health Foundation. This funding allows clinicians to tap into a resource that not only responds to needs but also creates an environment that’s familiar to kids: technology.
Statistics for southern Indiana make the need for pediatric behavioral health services obvious. In the 10-county region served by SIP, referrals for SBU’s services jumped from 1,800 in 2019 to 7,800 in 2020. In 2021, roughly 10,500 patients were seen in pediatric offices for behavioral health reasons.
SBU Manager Mary Balle says these visits include children and adolescents with a wide range of mental health challenges, including anxiety, depression and substance use. In some children, COVID-19 protocols provoked isolation and obsessive compulsive disorder tendencies—constantly wanting to wash their hands, for example—while news about mass shootings made others afraid to go to school. Now monkeypox is upsetting kids. Violent thoughts and aggression are increasing.
“These kids are carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders,” said Balle.
And if that’s not enough, Balle noted that most of these children, along with their parents, don’t even realize they are suffering from mental health challenges.
Technology, though, is helping SBU detect these issues and connect patients to an appropriate provider in a timely manner. To do this, SBU uses pre-screening surveys that can be accessed on a computer, tablet or even smart phone.
Because kids are so accustomed to communicating through devices, they often answer questions more candidly through a device than face-to-face, Balle said. Through such screening, caregivers have helped kids on both ends of the spectrum—from early signs of depression to those who have overdosed, were about to kill themselves or were experiencing serious trauma. To accommodate more screenings, SBU is seeking additional funds for the purchase of more iPads.
“Technology helps us catch them earlier and do interventions,” Balle said.
Opportunities go beyond screenings, she added. SBU also received a grant to provide tele-med services to area school systems, serving kids facing barriers to care such as distance or time demands. Another grant is allowing SBU to set up virtual group counseling sessions.
The SIP caregivers support the program themselves, Balle noted. The SIP pediatricians diverted clinic staff to the behavioral health program, and they have dedicated three offices and another entire floor in their building to behavioral health services. In addition, practice physicians and nurses have pursued additional training in order to be well-informed about their patients’ mental health needs.
With more funds, Balle said, SBU would add even more technology, as well as staff members to follow up on care needs.
The goal in all of this? Catch children’s mental health challenges early, connect them to care and help them see through the darkness. “When you show a child the beauty of the world, they’re more likely to be optimistic,” Balle said.
If you’d like to support advancements SBU’s advancements in telehealth, contact IU Health Foundation Senior Development Officer Emily Trinkle at 812.345.5625.