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National poll finds rise in adolescent mental health problems, lack of care

National poll finds rise in adolescent mental health problems, lack of care
A national survey of parents finds many have difficulty getting needed mental health for their adolescent children. Photo by Jesús Rodríguez/Unsplash

March 21 (UPI) -- More than one in four parents in the United States report that their adolescent-aged children have seen a mental health specialist, with nearly 60% doing so within the past year, a survey released Monday by University of Michigan Health found.

And while one-third of parents surveyed indicate that their adolescent completed a mental health screening questionnaire at their primary care office, only four in 10 say their provider has asked about mental health concerns at all visits, the data showed.

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One in seven say that their provider never asked about mental health concerns, the survey found.

"Regular check-ups are the best time for providers to discuss potential mental health concerns," pediatrician Gary L. Freeda, co-director of University of Michigan Health C.S. Mott Children's Hospital National Poll on Children's Health, said in a press release.

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"If parents feel their adolescent's provider is not being proactive in raising these issues, they should bring it up with them," Freed said.

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In addition, adolescents should feel comfortable seeking help, he said.

The findings are based on responses from 1,201 parents of children ages 11 to 18 years surveyed in October 2021.

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Last year, three health professional groups -- the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and the Children's Hospital Association -- declared children's mental health a "national emergency."

This was due, at least in part, to research that suggested worsening mental health in young people nationally during the COVID-19 pandemic, with many schools closed to in-person learning and extracurricular activities curtailed to limit the spread of the virus.

However, screening and navigating the mental health care system remains difficult for many parents, according to the C.S. Mott Children's Hospital researchers who conducted the national poll.

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Although nearly all parents surveyed said they were confident they would recognize a possible mental health issue in their child, fewer report that their children are routinely screened for these problems, the survey found.

In addition, only one in four parents who responded thought their adolescent would definitely talk to them about a possible mental issue, and even fewer thought their adolescent would open up with their primary care provider, the data showed.

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Before the start of the pandemic, one in five adolescents across the country had a diagnosable mental health disorder, including depression and anxiety, the C.S. Mott researchers said.

"Even before the pandemic, mental health disorders in adolescents, such as depression and anxiety, were prevalent," Freed said.

"The pandemic caused significant stress and social disruption for kids that likely exacerbated these problems [and placed] a heavier burden on parents, health providers and other trusted adults in their lives to be aware of potential warning signs," he said.

During the pandemic, more than half of responding parents said they decided on their own to have their adolescent see a mental health specialist while less than one in five received a referral from their adolescent's primary care provider or school, the data showed.

Still, nearly half of the parents who tried to obtain a mental health evaluation and/or treatment for their adolescents during the pandemic indicated that they had difficulty doing so, the survey found.

These respondents cited long waits for appointments and trouble finding a provider who took their insurance or saw children, the Mott researchers said.

Ten percent of parents also said they simply just did not know where to go to find mental health care for their children, according to the researchers.

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"Difficulties finding and getting mental health care for youth reflects strains in our current mental health system and highlights the need for more ways to support parents and their children," Amy Wimpey Knight, president of Children's Hospital Association, said in a press release.

"Parents whose children need mental health help should remember they aren't alone, but they may need to be proactive and persistent in seeking support from a provider, their school or family or friends," she said.

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